Mental Health Disorders and Special Needs Students: Anxiety Disorder -

Mental Health Disorders and Special Needs Students: Anxiety Disorder

anxiety disorder in special needs nj

Disruptive behavior in special needs children may be generated by a mental health disorder. According to a 2008 study at Indiana University, 70 percent of a sample of children ages 10 to 14, and on the Autism spectrum, had also been diagnosed with another disorder.

A child who appears to be oppositional or aggressive may, in fact, be reacting to severe anxiety. This is often a physiological condition, as opposed to a learned behavior, and therefore difficult to address with your typical behavior intervention plan. Depending on the student’s age or degree of special needs, the child may not even fully recognize that he’s feeling anxious or be able to articulate it. Students suffering from anxiety disorders may sometimes be unable to meet academic and behavioral expectations, but there are ways that parents and teachers can help.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is characterized by a debilitating fear and worry. It can be a specific phobia, social anxiety, separation anxiety, or a general anxiety disorder, which is manifest by constantly worrying about lots of things. These forms of anxiety can cause headaches or stomach aches, or the child may become so overwhelmed that she isolates herself or acts out in frustration. Extreme anxiety can even lead to panic disorder, which is a sudden, intense episode of anxiety that can cause hyperventilating and a pounding heartbeat.

While some worry is necessary to keep kids alert to actual danger, and all children experience nerves from time to time, children with special needs often struggle with unnecessary anxiety that makes it difficult for them to function in school and in the community. A therapist or medical professional, such as a Child Psychiatrist, is vital to help with proper diagnosis and treatment. A professional can help you understand what’s really going on with your child, what’s provoking the behavior, and can give the child tools to deal with anxiety and prevent severe outbursts.

How to Help Special Needs’ Children with Anxiety Disorders

Pay attention to your child’s feelings. When your child becomes overly anxious, it can help to have an action plan of positive steps to prevent the anxiety from escalating.

Stay Calm

Stop what you are doing and take a few deep breaths with your child. You can’t calm an anxious child if you are anxious yourself.


Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings, or say he is anxious over nothing. Assure your child that his feelings are valid, and you will help him work through them. Convey confidence in the child's ability to handle his worries.


Once your child calms down, give praise for successfully managing the anxiety. Encourage and reward your child for his effort in monitoring his behaviors.

Plan for transitions

Any transition is difficult for a special needs child, so try to maintain a normal routine whenever possible. When the routine will be disrupted, give the child plenty of time and support to prepare in advance, both mentally and physically.

Make a list

Create a checklist of coping skills for your child. Teach your child to work through the checklist when he or she is anxious.

Some items on the checklist might include:

  • Take a deep breath.
    Pet an animal or find another tactile outlet like squeezing a stress ball or theraputty.
  • Sing a song.
  • Catch your thoughts. If they are verbal, listen to what they are expressing and write down or speak the anxious feeling out loud with them. This can help reinforce your empathy and understanding of what “they” are feeling. Ask, is it true? Again, depending on their level of disability, some of these techniques can help.

A professional therapist or psychiatrist might also recommend medication to help your child manage their anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a specific professional technique can also be used to help children with anxiety.

While the disruptive behavior of an extremely anxious child is upsetting for everyone, anxiety disorders in special needs children can be managed, with some empathy and professional help.

Request a Tour of The Gateway School

Since 1980, RKS Associates has been a leader in providing the needs of special education students and helping children grow to their fullest potential. Each of our schools seeks to empower each student with skills for life, work, and recreation; we believe that every individual possesses the dignity and potential to contribute to a better world.

As part of the RKS Associates Network of schools in New Jersey, the goal at the Gateway School is to assist all students in becoming as independent as possible and help them get ready for the future. Located in Carteret, NJ, we serve individuals throughout Central and Northern New Jersey. Contact us at our main office at 732.541.4400 with any questions or schedule a private tour of the Gateway School today.

Chris Hoye, Principal-The Gateway School of Carteret, NJ