People with autism have quadruple the risk for experiencing depression in their lifetime than those without the disorder. Autism presents many social and communication difficulties that can increase the risk for also suffering from depression.
Depression may not look the same in someone who has autism as it does in the general public. It can also be harder to diagnose in people with autism.
Treatment for depression in the autistic community often starts with prevention. Parents can help children to manage symptoms of autism and increase social skills in order to help minimize the risk.
Both autism and depression are complex disorders that require specialized treatment methods and models that typically focus on behavioral therapies.
The Connection Between Autism & Depression
Autism is a developmental disorder that involves issues with socialization, communication, and ritualistic and repetitive behaviors. Depression is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and isolation.
People with autism are more likely to struggle with depression than neurotypical individuals. When autism and depression co-occur, it is referred to as comorbid disorders.
There are a variety of reasons that someone with autism may be more prone to also suffer from depression, including:
Genetic factors. Both autism and depression are potentially heritable disorders.
Social and personal isolation. Autism can make it tough for people to communicate and socialize effectively, which can lead to loneliness as well as difficulties forming and maintaining friendships.
Bullying. Children and teens with autism can often be mistreated, leading to feelings of negative self-worth.
Repetitive thoughts and actions. People with autism engage in ritualized behaviors, which can lead to pervasive negative thoughts and emotions and a tendency to dwell on them.
Low self-esteem. Frustration with educational and academic abilities and challenges, as well as a recognition of being different from peers, can contribute to negative views of oneself.
Comorbid autism and depression can lead to more physical health problems, greater complications with treatment, more issues with socializing and isolation, and increased difficulties functioning in daily life and within the community.
Another major risk for comorbid depression and autism is self-harm. People with these co-occurring disorders have an increased rate of suicide and suicidal thoughts compared to the general population.
Recognizing Depression With Autism
Depression and autism often go hand in hand, but in the past, depression has often been overlooked in the autistic community. Recent research is showing the overlap of these two disorders is much more common than was previously recorded. Recorded rates of comorbid autism and depression range from as low as 1.4% all to way up to 57%.
It is likely that more people with autism struggle with depression than reported rates since it can be more difficult to diagnose or recognize depression in someone who is autistic.
Depression is a mood disorder based on internal thoughts and emotions. A person with autism often has difficulties labeling and expressing their thoughts and emotions effectively. Symptoms of depression in someone with autism can look different than they do in a neurotypical person. As a result, the diagnosis is often missed in autistic individuals.
Common signs of comorbid depression with autism are:
Eating issues and weight fluctuations.
Decreased and low self-esteem.
Drop in energy levels.
Lack of interest in things and activities that were once pleasurable.
People with autism often have a flat affect, which means they converse in a flat monotone or robotic-type voice. This can be difficult to read and know what emotions might be underneath.
A person with autism also struggles to understand their own emotions and express them. It can also be hard to separate symptoms of depression from those of autism. Again, this further complicates the diagnosis of depression in people with autism.
The best way to spot depression in someone with autism is to pay attention to changes. Parents are the best advocates for their children. Take note of changes in sleeping and eating patterns as well as behavioral shifts.
Supporting Mental Health in Autistic Children
There are several things you can do to help protect your child’s mental health and lower their risk for depression. Preventing depression by safeguarding mental health is important for children with autism.
Early intervention for autism is paramount. The earlier a child is diagnosed and starts treatment, the more likely they are to develop healthy coping skills and habits for socializing and communicating more effectively.
Early treatment for autism can help to improve communication and socialization skills, which can minimize social and personal isolation. This helps an autistic child to better understand and express their thoughts and feelings, thus lowering the risk for anxiety and depression.
Teenagers, Autism & Depression
Adolescent autistic children may require extra attention from parents and therapy providers. The social pressures and increased changes that come with transitioning into adulthood can potentially raise the risk for depressive and suicidal ideations. This population is at an especially high risk for depression.
Children on the autism spectrum who are entering adolescence are also becoming more aware of their differences from their peers, and they can start to feel even more isolated. Academic pressures and challenges often increase during this time as well.
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