Understanding Autism and Intrusive Thoughts: Coping Strategies and Support

Last Updated
April 23, 2023
Understanding Autism and Intrusive Thoughts: Coping Strategies and Support

Autism & Intrusive Thoughts
How To Cope
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Autism and intrusive thoughts are distinct concepts, although they can sometimes coexist. Autism is a developmental condition that affects how a person communicates, interacts with others, and processes information. It is characterized by difficulties in social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests.

On the other hand, intrusive thoughts are unwanted, persistent thoughts that can cause distress or anxiety. They are not specific to autism and can be experienced by people with various mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, or depression.

- Practice mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation
- Identify and challenge negative thought patterns
- Engage in activities that require focus and attention, such as puzzles, art, or physical exercise
- Accept the presence of intrusive thoughts without trying to suppress them
- Create a daily routine to provide structure and predictability
- Work with a therapist
- Connect with supportive friends, family members, or support groups
- Prioritize physical and emotional well-being by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, and engaging in relaxation techniques
- Write down intrusive thoughts and any patterns or triggers you notice
- Limit exposure to trigger

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. Intrusive thoughts are a common experience for many individuals with autism which are unwanted and distressing and can arise spontaneously, These thoughts can be repetitive and may involve themes such as germs, harm, or symmetry, similar to the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In this article, we will explore the relationship between autistic disorder and intrusive thoughts, the impact of these thoughts on an autistic person's life, and the coping strategies and support for managing them. We will also discuss the potential comorbid diagnosis of OCD in individuals with autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intrusive Thoughts

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by a wide range of symptoms, and intrusive thoughts are often reported by individuals with autism, specifically those who are diagnosed with autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder [1]. These intrusive thoughts can be distressing and may interfere with an autistic person in daily functioning. They can range from worries about contamination, harm, or symmetry, to repetitive thoughts about routine or interests. These thoughts may cause anxiety and distress and can impact the quality of life of individuals with autism.

The relationship between autism and intrusive thoughts is complex and may involve various factors. Restricted and repetitive behaviors, which are hallmark features of autism, may intensify or trigger intrusive thoughts. For example, repetitive behaviors such as checking, ordering, or counting may be associated with obsessive and intrusive thoughts about symmetry or perfection. Additionally, sensory sensitivities, which are common in individuals with autism, may also trigger intrusive thoughts. Sensory overload or discomfort during sensory processing may lead to increased anxiety and intrusive thoughts related to sensory triggers.


A boy with autism spectrum disorder sitting against a tree

Demystifying Intrusive Thoughts in Autism: Types and Manifestations

Intrusive thoughts can significantly impact the lives of individuals with autism, often causing distress and interfering with daily functioning. Understanding the different types and manifestations of intrusive thoughts is essential in order to provide effective support and coping strategies.

Types of Intrusive Thoughts in Autism:

Repetitive Thoughts and Images:

  • The constant replaying of specific memories or events
  • Mental images that are distressing or unwanted
  • Recurring thoughts about potential harm or accidents

Obsessions and Fixations:

  • Preoccupations with specific subjects, objects, or topics
  • Incessant thoughts about order, symmetry, or perfection
  • Persistent worries about germs, contamination, or cleanliness

Intrusive Questions and Doubts:

  • Continuous questioning of one's actions, decisions, or beliefs
  • Persistent doubts about the accuracy of past events or conversations
  • Intrusive thoughts revolving around morality, ethics, or existential concerns
A boy with autism spectrum disorder experiencing intrusive thoughts

Intrusive Sensory Thoughts:

  • Overwhelming focus on sensory experiences, such as sounds, textures, or smells
  • Intrusive thoughts related to sensory sensitivities, such as fear of loud noises or aversion to specific textures
  • Replaying sensory experiences in the mind, leading to anxiety or distress

Manifestations of Intrusive Thoughts:

Emotional Distress:

  • Feelings of anxiety, fear, or panic triggered by intrusive thoughts
  • Emotional intensity and sensitivity to the content of intrusive thoughts
  • Difficulty in managing and regulating emotions associated with intrusive thoughts

Interference with Daily Functioning:

  • Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks due to intrusive thoughts
  • Disrupted sleep patterns and intrusive thoughts intruding into dreams
  • Impaired social interactions and relationships due to preoccupation with intrusive thoughts

Rituals and Compulsions:

  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors or rituals as a response to intrusive thoughts
  • Need for reassurance or seeking validation from others to alleviate distress caused by intrusive thoughts
  • Development of specific coping mechanisms or avoidance strategies

Coping Strategies:

Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques:

  • Cognitive restructuring: Identifying and challenging negative or irrational thoughts associated with intrusive thoughts
  • Thought stopping: Using a cue or technique to interrupt and redirect intrusive thoughts
  • Exposure and response prevention: Gradual exposure to triggers while refraining from engaging in compulsive behaviors

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques:

  • Mindfulness meditation: Cultivating present-moment awareness to observe and accept intrusive thoughts without judgment
  • Deep breathing exercises: Practicing controlled breathing to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Systematically tensing and releasing muscles to release tension and promote calmness

Supportive Environment and Routines:

  • Establishing predictable daily routines and structures to provide a sense of security and stability
  • Creating a safe and soothing physical environment that minimizes sensory overload
  • Encouraging open communication and fostering a supportive network of family and friends
A boy with autism spectrum disorder gazing into a store's window

Comorbid Diagnosis of OCD and Autism

The comorbidity between anxiety disorders OCD and autism is well-documented in research. A recent systematic review found that around 40% of autistic individuals acquire at least one comorbid anxiety-related diagnosis. The most frequent diagnosis was specific phobia (30%), followed by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD; 17%).[2]

OCD refers to a mental disorder characterized by recurrent and intrusive thoughts, urges, or images (obsessions) that are followed by repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). People with comorbid OCD and autism display symptoms such as repetitive thoughts, rituals, or compulsions that are often related to sensory sensitivities. For example, an individual may repeat a certain behavior in order to reduce anxiety caused by external stimuli. Or they may engage in compulsive behavior such as checking and ordering activities to reduce their feeling of insecurity.

Furthermore, research has explored the longitudinal and offspring risk of comorbid OCD and autism. Studies found that individuals with both autism and OCD tend to have a higher risk of persistent OCD symptoms into adolescence compared to those with OCD alone [2]. Further, studies suggest that the offspring of parents with OCD and autism have an increased risk of developing OCD, autism, or both, suggesting a genetic and familial link between the two conditions [2].

Did you know?

There are 4 types of OCD: contamination, checking, symmetry and ordering, and intrusive thoughts. Each type presents unique challenges.

Coping Strategies for Managing Intrusive Thoughts in Autism

Autistic kid having intrusive thoughts

Managing intrusive thoughts can be challenging for young people, but there are coping strategies that can be helpful for individuals with autism. It's important to note that different strategies may work for different individuals, so it's essential to tailor the approach to each person's needs and preferences. Here are some coping strategies that may be effective for autistic people:

  1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapeutic approach that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. It can be adapted for individuals with autism and intrusive thoughts and may involve techniques such as cognitive restructuring, exposure and response prevention, and problem-solving skills training. CBT can help individuals with autism identify and challenge intrusive thoughts, and develop strategies to cope with them effectively.
  2. Social Skills Training: Social skills training can help individuals with autism improve their social interactions and communication skills, which may in turn help them better manage intrusive thoughts. Learning effective communication strategies, assertiveness, and emotional regulation can empower individuals with autism to express their thoughts and concerns in a constructive way, reducing the impact of intrusive thoughts on their daily life.
  3. Sensory Regulation Techniques: Sensory sensitivities can trigger intrusive thoughts in individuals with autism. Engaging in sensory regulation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or sensory breaks can help individuals with autism manage sensory overload and reduce anxiety, which may in turn help reduce the occurrence of intrusive thoughts.
  4. Structured Routine: Establishing a structured routine can provide a sense of predictability and stability for individuals with autism, which may help reduce anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Having a consistent schedule for daily activities, including leisure time, self-care, and relaxation, can help individuals with autism better manage their thoughts and emotions.
  5. Supportive Environment: Creating a supportive environment can be beneficial for individuals with autism in managing intrusive thoughts. This may involve reducing environmental triggers, such as excessive noise or clutter, and creating a calming and organized space. Having a support system in place, including family, friends, or a therapist, can also provide emotional support and practical strategies for coping with intrusive thoughts.

Support for Individuals with Autism and OCD

Autistic kid with a health care professional

In cases where individuals with autism get a comorbid OCD diagnosis, it's important to seek appropriate professional support. OCD treatment typically involves a combination of therapy and medication and may be tailored to the individual's needs and preferences. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a commonly used therapy for OCD, which involves gradually confronting and resisting the urge to perform compulsive behaviors or restricted repetitive behaviors while managing the anxiety that arises from repetitive behavior. Medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may also be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of OCD.

It's crucial to work with a qualified mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, who has experience in treating both autism and OCD. They can provide a comprehensive assessment of developmental disorders, develop an individualized treatment plan, and provide ongoing support to individuals with comorbid autism and OCD.


Managing intrusive thoughts can be challenging for individuals with autism, but online therapy provides effective support. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), social skills training, and sensory regulation techniques can help. Creating a supportive environment, maintaining structured routines, and seeking qualified mental health professionals who understand autism and OCD are crucial. Online therapy offers valuable strategies to manage intrusive thoughts and promote fulfilling lives.


Do autistic kids have obsessive thoughts?

Yes, some autistic kids can have obsessive thoughts. These thoughts can manifest in different ways, such as having a strong interest in a certain topic or an obsession with certain objects or routines. Obsessive thinking is often seen as a symptom of autism and can interfere with daily functioning if not properly managed.

How do I stop obsessive thoughts in autism?

Managing obsessive thoughts in autism is not one-size-fits-all, but you may find helpful strategies. Try to identify triggers for obsessive thoughts and plan for when they occur. Distracting activities like hobbies or walking can work well. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing or visualization help reduce stress. Practice mindfulness to observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them and stay present. Mental health professionals can help you with guidance and support to overcome obsessive thoughts.


  1. Anxiety Disorders and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder - PMC
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders: Longitudinal and Offspring Risk - PMC

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