What’s the difference between autism and mental health?
Autism and mental health disorders are distinct but often interconnected concepts. Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is a spectrum disorder meaning that it can present in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of severity. Autism is often diagnosed in early childhood and is considered a developmental disorder, rather than a mental health disorder. Mental health disorders, on the other hand, refer to a range of conditions that affect a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. This can include, but is not limited to, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and personality disorders.
How are autism and mental health connected?
The connection between autism and mental health is complex. Research has shown that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues, particularly during adolescence. Although the teenage years can be a challenging time for anyone, they can prove especially difficult for those with autism. Based on the nature of the diagnosis, adolescents with autism may struggle more significantly with social interactions, communication, and sensory-based issues than an adolescent without Autism Spectrum Disorder. They may struggle to fit in with peer groups, experience stigma and discrimination, or may struggle with academic performance which can lead to increased stress, isolation, and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Mental health diagnoses provided alongside an autism diagnosis, known as a co-occuring disorder, can both be caused by and exacerbate difficulties experienced due to the autism. Common co-occurring disorders with Autism Spectrum Disorder include:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Some signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in mood
- Altered sleep patterns
- Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Behavioral concerns or decrease in grades at school
- Change in socialization
If you notice any of these signs, it is important to seek professional help as soon as possible, as early intervention is best to help get your child back on track towards psychological health and well being.
The treatment options for teens with autism and co-occurring mental health disorders can vary depending on the specific needs and challenges of the individual. It is crucial to have a comprehensive approach that addresses both the autism-related difficulties and the mental health concerns. This may involve a multidisciplinary approach, including therapies, medications, and support services tailored to the individuals specific needs.
- Behavioral Therapies: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and other behavioral therapies can help address challenging behaviors, improve social skills, and enhance communication abilities.
- Psychotherapy: Different forms of psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can be beneficial in treating mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or OCD.
- Medications: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms of mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. It is important to consult with a qualified healthcare professional who can assess the need for medication as well as monitor its effectiveness.
- Social Skills Training: Social skills training programs cab help teens with autism improve social interactions, communication, and overall quality of social relationships.
- Supportive Services: Accessing various support services, such as support groups, academic services, parent coaching, in-home support, or vocational training can provide additional assistance and guidance for teens as well as their families.
It is important to seek professional help from a qualified mental health professional who has experience working with individuals with autism. This is because it can be difficult to tease out how much of what your child presents with is due to autism vs another mental health diagnosis. As a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist (LMFT) with training in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and experience treating co-occurring autism and mental health in teens,, I can help provide support tailored to your teen’s specific needs while assisting you and your teen with identifying additional adjunctive services for comprehensive care. Remember, you are not alone in this journey. We are here to help!