On The BI Blog

Autism and Impact on Mental Health

April 22, 2022
By: Behavioral Innovations
autism mental illness, autism and mental illness, autism and mental health issues

Autism or ASD (autism spectrum disorder) affects 1 in 44 children in the United States, according to the CDC. Over the years, as the number of those diagnosed with autism has been increasing, so has the impact it has had on the mental well-being of those diagnosed with the condition, as well as their parents and guardians. Children and adults on the autism spectrum are more prone to mental health issues like anxiety, ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), depression, etc.

Co-occurring mental health conditions are common among people with autism spectrum disorder. This experience can have a negative impact on the individual’s quality of life particularly if they don’t receive effective treatment or learn to navigate their mental health condition and autism in ways that support their daily functioning and personal well-being.

Rates of Mental Health Conditions Co-Occurring with Autism Spectrum Disorder

According to research,

  • 28% of people with ASD also have ADHD or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • 20% of people with ASD also have some type of anxiety disorder
  • 13% of people with ASD have a clinically diagnosable sleep disorder
  • 12% of people with ASD also have a disruptive, impulse-control, or conduct disorder
  • 11% of people with ASD also have a depressive disorder
  • 9% of people with ASD also have obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • 5% of people with ASD also have bipolar disorder
  • 4% of people with ASD also have a schizophrenia spectrum disorder

Other mental health and behavioral challenges that people with autism might experience include self-harm, elopement, being impulsive in very dangerous ways, and being aggressive toward others. Some examples of self-harm include cutting oneself, banging one’s head on a wall, and pulling out one’s hair. Elopement refers to wandering or running away from the location in which the individual is supposed to be. Impulsivity can be dangerous especially when the person acts in ways that could hurt themselves or others.

READ MORE: Concerned About Your Child's Behavior? Proven strategies that work

It is extremely important to consider a person’s ASD as well as any other co-occurring conditions (both mental health conditions and physical or medical conditions) when caring for them or when providing services to them.

Why are people with autism more prone to mental health issues?

Seven out of ten people with autism also have another mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although research has not yet discovered the root cause for why mental health conditions are at such high rates in people with autism, some possible causes include:

  • Finding it difficult to fit in with others
  • Experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression related to not being able to make sense of the world
  • Delays in proper diagnosis and treatment of mental health challenges
  • Experiencing stigma and discrimination
  • Lack of support from others
  • Lack of effective treatment that is suitable for the individual

READ MORE: Aggression in Children with Autism? How to Manage Aggressive Behavior

How to Support the Mental Health of a Child with Autism

It’s important to focus on supporting the mental health of children with autism spectrum disorder. We’ll offer some ways that you can help support the mental health of your autistic child.

One way to support the mental health of a person with autism is to encourage them to access therapy or counseling services to address their mental health concerns.

Another recommendation is to be sure that you, as the parent or caregiver of a child with autism, address the child’s basic needs. Feelings of being tired or hungry, or lacking in certain nutrition can have such a profound impact on a person’s mental health. It can certainly make conditions like depression, anxiety, or challenging behaviors more severe.

Strategies parents and caregivers apply to their children will likely vary from one family to another depending on a variety of factors. For instance, supporting the mental health of an autistic child with anxiety will be different than supporting an autistic child with depression or ADHD. It’s important that parents and caregivers take the time to learn about any mental health conditions, challenges, or concerns that their child experiences.

Tips for Positive Mental Health in Adults with ASD

If you are an adult with autism or know someone who is on the spectrum, consider the following recommendations for supporting positive mental health.

  • STAY ACTIVE: Make sure you make time for some sort of movement throughout your day. This might be exercising, going for a walk, or simply moving around your house such as by doing household chores or stretching.
  • CREATE STRUCTURE AND ROUTINE: It can be helpful to create a daily routine and then follow that routine consistently. Be sure not to over-schedule your day but do schedule basic necessary activities throughout the day as well as activities related to your responsibilities and your goals.
  • RESTRICT MEDIA CONSUMPTION: Although media, such as television and social media apps, can be informative, entertaining, or simply a way to pass the time, it’s important to restrict over-consumption.
  • CONNECT WITH OTHERS: Everyone will differ on how much they need to reach out and connect with others. Consider who is important to you and in what ways and how often you should contact them. This might be sending a text message once a week or planning a get-together once a month.
  • TAKE CARE OF YOUR BASIC NEEDS: Be sure to get healthy amounts of sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and stay hydrated.
  • ENGAGE IN ACTIVITIES YOU ENJOY: Do something you enjoy every day.

READ MORE: Self-Care & Stress Management Tips for Parents of Children with Autism and Special Needs

Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

People with autism spectrum disorder may have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some reasons for this include having difficulty with change, having to wear masks which can be very uncomfortable for some people with autism, disruptions in one’s daily routine, and more.

Although COVID-19 has caused devastating loss and struggle in our society, some people with autism (as well as some people without autism) may have experienced some positive impacts from the changes that occurred throughout the pandemic. For instance, the pandemic has offered telehealth opportunities for medical care and therapy services, online opportunities for conferences and events, and remote learning possibilities. One research study also found that overall sleep quality improved for people with autism over the course of the pandemic. Having a more inclusive experience at work, school, home, and with the community as well as having improved sleep all have a great impact on a person’s mental health.

ASD Mental Health Resource Recommendations

Although there are some general guidelines we can adhere to that support the mental health of people with autism, it is important to consider what is best for the individual person’s own mental health. To help with that, below are a few more resources that you might consider for supporting mental health in yourself or your child.

Online Resources for ASD & Mental Health

References:
A range of mental health tips to support you through coronavirus. Autistica. (2020, April 2). Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://www.autistica.org.uk/what-is-autism/coronavirus/tips-for-managing-mental-health-coronavirus

Autism and mental health. Mental Health Foundation. (2022, February 21). Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/a/autism-and-mental-health

Halstead, E. J., Sullivan, E. C., & Dimitriou, D. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 on Sleep in Autistic Adults: Longitudinal Comparisons pre and During Lockdown. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.708339

Lai, M-C., Kassee, C., Besney, R., Bonato, S., Hull, L., Mandy, W., Szatmari, P., Ameis, S. 2019. Prevalence of co-occurring mental health diagnoses in the autism population: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry, Volume 6, Issue 10. Pages 819-829, ISSN 2215-0366, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(19)30289-5.