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Neurodivergent individuals, such as those with ADHD or autism, often experience anxiety to a greater degree than their neurotypical peers. This anxiety can stem from sensory sensitivities, social pressures, and a constant need to adapt to an environment that isn’t designed for them. As a neurodivergent educator with over 35 years of experience, I’ve seen these challenges firsthand.

The Survival Instinct in an Anxious Brain

Anxiety is a natural survival mechanism. It kept us alive in the past by alerting us to danger. But for those with heightened anxiety, that survival instinct is often overactive. This leads to a constant state of fight, flight, freeze, or even “fib” – where kids may not even remember an event or why they reacted because the brain isn’t storing memories efficiently in that state.

Anxiety Across the Ages

Anxiety can look different across development:

Younger children: Play, artwork, or behavior can be indicators of underlying anxiety. They may try to exert control or withdraw to feel safe.
Older kids: Anxiety can show up in aggression, withdrawal, masking, becoming a people-pleaser, or developing an inner critic.
Teenagers: Social pressure, peer groups, and conformity become major sources of anxiety, especially for those with food allergies. Teens may take unnecessary risks to fit in.

How to Manage Anxiety

Anxiety management is crucial for neurodivergent children and adults alike. Here are some tips:

Be aware of your thoughts: Catch negative self-talk and challenge it. Are your worries based on fact?
Practice calming techniques: Mindfulness, exercise, or even using humor to change your mindset can help switch off the brain’s worry circuits.
Model a calm and reassuring presence: Parents play a huge role. Their own anxieties can mirror a child’s, so practicing self-care is essential.
Unlearn old patterns: Just like we physically change the brain by exercising, we can break down unhelpful thought patterns and create new ones. This takes practice and patience!

Additional Challenges with Food Allergies

Parents and children with food allergies face a unique layer of stress. The constant vigilance necessary for safety can heighten anxiety and trauma responses. However, just as we work to rewire the brain with neurodivergent anxieties, the same strategies apply to those with food allergies. Recognising the root of anxious responses is the first step to finding new, calmer ways of thinking.

Resources and Support

Finding community and support is important for parents and educators of neurodivergent and food allergic individuals. Here are a few of the resources I recommend:

Facebook Group: Exceptional Learners.
Local support groups focused on specific neurodivergent conditions
Reputable food allergy organisations and support groups

Remember, you are not alone. With understanding, patience, and the right tools, we can help neurodivergent and food allergic individuals manage their anxiety and thrive.

Simon de Roza, Neurodivergent expert, Sydney, Australia

Photo credit: Designer491 / Dreamstime

Note: Neurodiversity Celebration Week is a worldwide initiative that challenges stereotypes and misconceptions about neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disabilities. In 2024, Neurodiversity Celebration Week took place from Monday 18 March – Sunday 24 March.