Many people confuse Autism as being a mental illness. It is not. Instead it is a developmental disorder. So, what are the differences between mental illnesses and Autism? Mental illnesses involve a person's affect, thought process and behaviour. It is usually linked to distress in an individual's mental state and issues with social functioning (“Mental Illness vs. Autism and Other Development Disorders”,2019). It can affect people at any age but it does not affect the individual's ability to learn new skills or have an impact on their academics. Whereas, Autism is a developmental disorder that causes difficulties in an individual's ability to socialize, interact and communicate. It also affects the way their thoughts are being processed as a result of the lack of theory of mind and they display restricted, repetitive interest in objects. Autism may appear at birth or during childhood and is generally diagnosed by the age of 18. Moreover, Autism affects the ability of how an individual learns thus affecting their academics and the development of varied skills (“Mental Illness vs. Autism and Other Development Disorders”,2019) .
Do people with autism suffer from mental illnesses?
Now that we have a clear understanding of what mental illness and Autism are, as well as their differences, the next question is “Do people with Autism suffer from mental illnesses?”.
Unfortunately, the answer is Yes. People with Autism do suffer from mental illnesses. Some of the common mental illnesses which they suffer from are depression and anxiety. Research has shown that there is an increasing chance of people with Autism suffering from depression and anxiety when their diagnosis is not accepted by people around them. There is also the incidence of lower self-acceptance (Cage, 2017) and loneliness due to their difficulties in social interactions and communication as well as when they are being bullied (“Bullying causes significant short-term emotional and physical consequences for children with autism”, 2013).
How can we recognise the signs?
In order to have good mental and physical health, it is important to get treatment when a person with autism suffers from depression and anxiety. To do that, we have to recognise the signs that are present. However, it commonly goes unnoticed or confused with the symptoms of Autism. This is because some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety overlaps with the symptoms of autism. For example, having a flat expression, disturbance in sleep, social withdrawal, decreased appetite, lack of energy and decreasing motivation in interacting with others (Mcdougle, 2018) . Furthermore, some of them have limited to no speech and would not be able to inform us how they feel, hence making it harder to recognise definite signs of depression and anxiety in people with Autism.
Although it is difficult, there are some ways where we can identify depression in people with Autism. We can take note of the red flags which signals the possibility of depression and anxiety, such as checking if there are any changes in the sleeping and/or eating patterns (if there is an increase or decrease in the individual's sleeping and/or eating patterns). If there is any lack of interest in things that they used to enjoy doing.
Pediatricians have to stay attuned to patients with autism by asking and looking for subtle changes in the sleeping, eating and daily habits. Similarly, parents can take note of physical complaints and behavioural changes in their child. This is essential as depression can be manifested as physical complaints such as headaches or stomach aches. Likewise, depression can worsen "aggression, self-injurious behaviour, and irritability" in people with autism. These are key signals that can be taken note of to help identify depression and anxiety and provide the help they need (Weinstock, 2019).
What kind of treatment is provided to treat depression and anxiety in people with autism?
Finding the right treatment to treat depression and anxiety is as difficult as recognising the signs in people with autism. Currently, there isn't a specific treatment for people with Autism but medical practitioners use CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to help reframe negative thoughts, modify inflexibility of thoughts and provide coping strategies. While there is limited research data on the effectiveness of CBT in treating depression, CBT has been successful in treating anxiety in people with autism. Researchers and medical practitioners are still finding ways of adapting CBT to help depression in patients with autism (Weinstock, 2019).
Another type of therapy that may help depression is mindfulness-based therapy. This therapy encourages individuals with autism to identify and acknowledge their feelings and/or thoughts they have currently and accept them as they are. This therapy has been researched on and showed a reduction of depression and anxiety in depressive patients with autism (Weinstock, 2019). Additionally, vocational and social skills programs have been studied and showed to help reduce symptoms of depression although the program is not focused on treating depression. The reduction of depressive symptoms is observed because they are able to meet and initiate interactions with people of similar situations as them (Weinstock, 2019).
Good mental health is very important to everyone even with people diagnosed with Autism. Although, there are some symptoms in autism that overlap with depression and anxiety, it shouldn't be assumed immediately that it is part of the symptoms of autism. It is important to take a closer look at the slightest change observed and if need be to keep a record to help you as a caregiver and your child's medical practitioners to identify the red flags of depression and anxiety better. In addition to this, understanding and accepting people with autism will enable us to provide the much needed support that they need as a little kindness and graciousness can go a long way for them.
Written by Venezia.
Bullying causes significant short-term emotional and physical consequences for children with autism. (2013, January 10). Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130110094320.htm
Cage, E. (2017, November 14). Autistic people aren't really accepted – and it's impacting their mental health. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/autism-acceptance-affect-mental-health-society-a8043461.html
Mental Illness vs. Autism: Operational Differences: Disorders. (2019, November 21). Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://www.arrowpassage.com/mental-illness-vs-autism/
Mcdougle, C. (2018, September 5). What's the connection between autism and depression? Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/whats-connection-between-autism-and-depression
Weinstock, C. P. (2019, July 30). The deep emotional ties between depression and autism: Spectrum: Autism Research News. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-deep-emotional-ties-between-depression-and-autism/