Autism- Does Anxiety Cause Behavior Outbursts?

Autism Behavior Outburst

Today’s post is for all the parents who have ever been told “That’s just autism”, when their child does something, it is such an unsatisfying answer. And I’m sure your gut intuition is like, no, no, no, there’s a reason for this behavior, whatever it is. So if you’re in that situation, read this post, because I’m going to break down some cutting edge science for you.

Warning: This post is for everyone, anyone who’s heard “That’s just autism”. 

Trust your gut. And there’s always a reason for your child for doing what they’re doing. You just have to have the patience and energy and the right experts around you to find it.

INSAR 2020 Virtual Poster

We have this pandemic going on. Travel is not really happening. So the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) conference became a virtual conference. So there’s a great poster. And posters in the science world are when you can report on research before there’s a publication.

Usually scientists get to do some type of poster. A lot of times it’s the grad students or the postdocs that are actually presenting these posters. But this is cutting edge and I’m going to shock you. The title of this cutting edge research is “Reconceptualizing Behavior Outbursts in Autism, The Role of Anxiety.”

And here is the poster number and the lead author, if you want to look up the abstract: 

401.058, K.M. Dudley et al.

Behavior outbursts are the leading cause of psychiatric hospitalizations for those with autism. So if you have a young child right now and they’re having certain behaviors, if these behaviors aren’t addressed, when they get older, when they have behavioral outbursts. The way most of the community responds is to put them in a psychiatric hospital. Behavior outbursts are also related to poor quality of life.

The State of Current Research

So let’s look at the state of current research. When you go to a doctor, what are they thinking? They’re basically thinking about the current research that’s why it’s important for you to know the current research as well as the cutting-edge research. The current research is:

“The majority of research has examined behavior outbursts in autism as an indication of externalizing behavior disorder.”

That’s saying – if there’s a behavior, that is just externalizing. So this is where you get that phrase, ‘that’s just autism.’

That’s what the research says. And the researchers go on and say that there’s little research examining the potential for internal mechanisms as a potential driver. I have no idea why this research is the way it is. Why has this research area not evolved along so much more with autism? So the current research is that there’s no internal reason, right? The internal reason, meaning health, here they have anxiety as an example. There’s no understanding of how someone feels inside healthwise related to their behavior.

Their Research Objective

Thankfully, their research objective was to study whether anxiety is a mediator between an aspect of autism symptoms and behavior outbursts.

Basically, they want to know, is anxiety driving some of these behaviors? Should we actually be looking at anxiety and treating anxiety rather than just saying, oh, this is just autism? And the researchers were also looking at whether anxiety is a mediator between behavior, outbursts, and quality of life. If your child’s having a behavior outburst, their quality of life is likely not good. So this is what the research was looking at.


Their methods to study was data collection via survey, and they surveyed 274 parents or guardians of adults with autism.

Remember, these were adults so that the ages of the subjects were 20 to 58 years of age, 80% of them were male and the caregivers assessed their adult child’s autism symptoms, behavior outbursts, anxiety, and quality of life. And there are a variety of different ways to get at that information through reputable surveys. So, it was the actual caregivers that were assessing these symptoms.

The results

The researchers found significant direct relationships between insistence on sameness, anxiety and behavior outbursts. And I know you’re sitting there as a parent like “Really? They had to study this?” But, yes, they did. Thankfully, they did. I’m glad they did, because this kind of information needs to get to more and more doctors.

They also found higher levels of insistence on sameness, predicted higher levels of behavior outbursts, and more anxiety. So there’s a linear relationship here.

They also found higher anxiety predicted significantly higher levels of behavior outbursts. This is all important for researchers to know so that they stop blaming the person for having the behavior outburst. There’s a reason for our children, regardless of how old they are. There’s a reason for behavioral outbursts. And many times it’s from health, from not feeling good, from anxiety, from many other issues. This study was focusing specifically on anxiety.

Research Conclusions

The results, and this is a direct quote:

“The results of this study are the first of its kind to demonstrate the clear importance of anxiety in impacting behavior outbursts and quality of life.”

So if you are a parent and you are frustrated because experts keep telling you “that’s just autism” and they’re not getting the problem. And in your gut, you know, wait a second, there’s just something not right with my child. Trust that intuition, because as a parent, you are far ahead of the research, the quote right here. It’s the first of its kind to demonstrate the clear importance of anxiety and impacting behavior outbursts & quality of life.

“Anxiety directly predicted more behavior outbursts, and anxiety were key mechanisms through which insistence on sameness decreased quality of life.”


And this is a direct quote from the poster itself:

“Results suggest the importance of treating anxiety as a potential mechanism underlying behavioral outbursts in adults with autism.”

Hugely important, hugely important. It’s amazing that in the year 2020 that a conclusion like this has to be published. But it’s so true. I just speak to so many parents who get so frustrated when they’re just told things that don’t make sense from experts or experts are blaming the parenting – it can be so frustrating. So if you’re a parent and you’re frustrated, just know to trust your intuition. You just haven’t found the right person to work with yet.

As a parent, when someone tells you something that does not make sense, trust your intuition, if that’s the only thing you take away from this post, please take that away because, oh, my goodness, we are told some crazy stuff, some stuff that does not make sense whatsoever. And it’s the year 2020. So the research is now showing how it’s important to treat the person as a whole and not just blame behavior on autism. Trust your intuition.

It takes science decades to catch up to your parenting knowledge. Decades, right!

This is 2020 and they’re only coming to this conclusion now.

Trust your gut.