Anyone can develop a mental disorder, and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are no different. For people with ASD, depression is a common co-occurring disorder.
More than 40% of adults with autism have one or more mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), low mood, depression, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Talking about mental health and destigmatizing it can lead to healthy action and encourage individuals and their family members to reach out for support.
In this blog, we will be looking at:
- What causes depression and anxiety in adults with autism?
- What are the depression symptoms in adults with autism?
- What are the symptoms of anxiety in adults with autism?
- How to support adults with autism cope with depression and anxiety
- Is there professional mental health treatment for adults with autism?
What Causes Depression and Anxiety in Adults with Autism?
Anxiety and depression come from an individual’s environment and genetics due to an imbalance in brain chemistry. For people with autism, depression and anxiety can easily come from the unique experiences that come with their developmental disability.
Because individuals with ASD think differently than their neurotypical peers, this can amplify negative experiences such as bullying and isolation and struggles with social and personal relationships.
A survey from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University found that of 1200 parents with children with ASD, 63 percent of the children experienced bullying.
Bullying is more common in childhood, but these experiences can carry into and impact adulthood, affecting mental health long-term.
In the same way, adults with autism may continue struggling to build solid relationships and friend groups. The general population understands the difficulty of making friends in adulthood. Having social and cognitive differences on top of emerging into adulthood makes it all the more challenging.
There are many contributing factors to anxiety in adults with autism, both genetic and environmental. Both neurotypical and adults with autism can develop anxiety from the same triggers.
Still, anxious feelings can be more extreme for those with extra barriers due to cognitive and developmental disabilities. For example, finding a job, independent living, and taking part in dating can be more difficult for an adult with autism.
Adults with autism are prone to anxiety because of developmental factors like social anxiety and specific phobias. The Organization for Autism Research shares that “as many as 84 percent of children with ASD experience significant fear or anxiety that interferes with their daily lives.”
What are Depression Symptoms in Adults with Autism?
Most people have a general idea of what depression looks like, either from their own experiences or those of a loved one. Depression has a set of common symptoms used for mental health diagnoses, although each person will uniquely exhibit negative emotions.
Adults with autism spectrum disorder may react to depression entirely differently from what’s typically expected. This is partly due to how they handle and experience emotions and communicate with others.
They’re less likely to confide in another person with their mental health struggles or feelings of sadness. Because of this, individuals with autism are more likely to bottle up their emotions, making it more challenging to open up and receive help through support services like therapy.
Even though depression can look different in different people, a professional diagnosis is still important, especially to receive medical assistance.
When identifying the signs of depression in an adult with autism, look for symptoms such as:
- Irritability and becoming upset more easily
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Low motivation
- Expressing low self-worth
- Appetite changes
- Problems with concentration
- Decrease in learning progress
- Sleeping issues (either sleeping too much or too little)
- Speaking in a dull, flat voice; lacking expression or emotions
What Percentage of Adults with Autism Have Depression?
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports that 40.2% of adults with ASD have depression – four times the amount of neurotypical individuals.
What are the Symptoms of Anxiety in Adults with Autism?
Similar to depression, anxiety in adults with autism will look different than in their neurotypical peers. Anxiety is widespread among people with autism, and triggers may occur in situations that aren’t usually deemed stressful or anxiety-inducing.
There are several types of anxiety disorders; For individuals with autism, specifically children, the most common disorders are specific phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and social anxiety disorder.
Other times, anxiety may come from experiences prevalent among adults with anxiety, like job interviews and social events.
For adults with autism, anxiety symptoms include:
- Irritability or being “wound up”
- Sudden meltdowns and outbursts
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Sleeping issues (trouble falling or staying asleep)
- Frequent nightmares and night terrors
- Obsessive thinking
- Difficulty concentrating and thinking
- Decrease in learning progress
- Avoiding social situations and leaving the house
- Headaches, muscle aches, and stomach aches
- Trembling, sweating, and hyperventilating
What Percentage of Adults with Autism have Anxiety?
In a National Library of Medicine (NLM) study, anxiety disorders were diagnosed in 20.1% of adults with ASD.
Another collection of autism research data suggests that 50% of adults with autism meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
How to Support Adults with Autism Cope with Depression and Anxiety
While professional help is essential to treat depression and anxiety, there are numerous ways that you can support your loved one deal with the negative symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Consider the following practices to encourage healthy mental health:
Exercise and activities that get the blood pumping release feel-good endorphins. Activities as simple as walks and swimming enhance a sense of well-being and reduce anxiety and depression. These also help with memory and quality of sleep.
Unfortunately, trouble sleeping is a common symptom of depression and anxiety disorders. While it may take time, finding little ways to aid sleep makes a huge difference in the long run. Good sleep is a must for a balanced body and mind.
Everyone has different preferences when they sleep, but some variations may include:
- Blackout curtains or a night light
- White noise machine, music, or earplugs
- Limiting screen time before bed
- Soothing baths
- Adjusting the temperature of the room
- Changing out pillows, blankets, and sheets
Adult life gets busy, and built-up tension can happen to the best of us. Encouraging adults with autism to take breaks and relax offers a way to reduce anxiety and balance daily life. Exercises like listening to calming music, watching a favorite movie, and yoga are excellent options.
Individuals with autism tend to be selective with their food preferences, making it difficult to get a balanced diet. Encouraging trying new food and more nutritious choices may be challenging. Still, it can significantly improve mental health, especially if the individual tends to reach for unhealthy and junky food.
Not all adults with autism need or even want a service/comfort animal. Still, many do, and it can significantly improve their comfort levels and ability to relax and have fun. Outside of owning a pet, adults with autism may find visiting zoos, aquariums, or local animal shelters enjoyable. Many studies show that dogs and cats can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Hobbies and Special Interests
Individuals with autism tend to have specific topics and activities they enjoy, sometimes even obsessing over. Finding ways to incorporate these interests into games, events, and conversations can take their mind off anxious thoughts. Likewise, when we enjoy conversations with others, it’s a bonding experience, helping with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Is There Professional Mental Health Treatment For Adults with Autism?
Thanks to the recent surge in autism studies and recognition of their unique struggles, various mental health treatments have become available. Different techniques will be more efficient in treating anxiety and depression symptoms, and each individual must find the best fit.
The most common mental health supports available to adults with autism include:
- ABA Therapy
- Occupational Therapy
- Group and Individual Therapy
- Independent Living Training
- Family Therapy
- Talk Therapy (Psychotherapy)
- Psychiatric Assistance and Medication
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Educational and School-Based Therapies
- Nutritional Therapy
- Behavior and Communication Therapy
Roman Empire Agency Dedicates Itself to Each Consumer’s Personal Growth
At Roman Empire Agency, we offer several services to support individuals with autism in their daily life, increasing independence and aiding in behavior and cognitive development.
Our services include:
- Adaptive Skills Training (AST)
- Independent Living Skills Training (ILS)
- Supported Living Services (SLS)
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
- Forensic Services
- SSI Assistance
Our team of top professionals is here to support you and your loved one. Roman Empire’s services assist adults with autism in their independence and integration in the community.
Please reach out to us today to learn more about our services and how to get involved.