People who have co-occurring disorders have more than one mental health condition. There are conditions that tend to go with each other. In this article, we’ll take a look at the connection between autism and depression. Many people with autism also have diagnosable depression. If you have both, it can be challenging to deal with symptoms from your dual diagnosis in your everyday life. But effective treatment is available for people who have depression in autism.
How Common Is Depression Among People with Autism?
Investigators analyzed data on children and young adults from Sweden and found that 20% of young people with autism also have clinical depression. That rate of depression is more than triple the rate of depression among the general population. Researchers also found that young people with autism who had greater functioning and intellectual abilities than those with more severe autism had a greater risk of depression.
Other research reveals that nearly half of adults with autism suffer from depression. Like the one in Sweden, this study showed that depression is more prevalent for autism sufferers who have higher intelligence.
What Does Depression Look Like in Someone with Autism?
Depression in autism has the same symptoms as depression on its own:
- Persistent negative mood
- Loss of interest in activities
- Low energy
- Appetite changes
- Sleep problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts
Symptoms of autism include difficulties with social interaction and communication. These symptoms may make depression in autism go unnoticed and untreated. This is because people with autism may have a hard time identifying and communicating their feelings. Trouble with social interaction can also make it hard for autistic patients to open up to other people. Family members, friends, and doctors often have to rely on behavioral changes to notice depression in people with autism.
It’s important not to confuse autism and depression. Both can make individuals struggle in social situations and relationships. The difference is why these difficulties occur. People with autism tend to lack the social skills needed to engage with others. People with depression withdraw because they no longer enjoy socializing with others.
Why Do Autism and Depression Co-Occur?
Autism and depression co-occur for a variety of reasons. For example, people with autism who have above average intelligence may have higher rates of depression because they’re more aware of how difficult their autism makes social situations. This awareness may contribute to depression.
Autistic patients with below average intelligence might struggle to communicate their depressive symptoms. This may make it more difficult to diagnose this group of individuals on the autism spectrum.
Autism can affect your ability to engage with others or function in society. For this reason, the condition can lead to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that fuel depression. These include:
- Shame and guilt about your autism
- Social withdrawal in response to social difficulties
- Low self-esteem associated with issues caused by autism
- Feelings of isolation as a result of autism
- Hopelessness about your autism
- Social exclusion and bullying for being autistic
Researchers have also suggested that autism and depression may share some of the same genetic risks.
Treatment for Autism and Depression
Dheeraj Rai, MBBS, MRC PSYCH, PhD led the study on young adults with autism in Sweden. He stressed:
Co-occurring conditions in autism receive little attention. The services, at least in European countries, mainly focus on diagnosis of autism rather than management of co-occurring conditions.
It’s crucial to treat depression while also treating autism. This offers the best chance for your well-being to improve. Depression in autism can be treated in different ways, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – This is a gold-standard of talk therapy for depression. It involves becoming aware of the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT teaches you skills and strategies for dealing with unhealthy patterns of thinking and reacting.
- Antidepressant medication
- Regular exercise
- A balanced and nutritious diet – This is low in sugar and processed food and high in complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
- Avoiding substance abuse and heavy drinking
- Ensuring you get enough sleep and that your sleep is restful – A healthy diet and regular exercise can help with this. So can limiting your caffeine and using devices like smartphones before bed.
- Regular social interaction – Autism can make it hard to engage with others or maintain healthy relationships, but it’s important to keep trying. Positive social interactions can be an effective way of combating the isolation that comes along with depression.
- Activities that help ground you in the present moment, away from ruminating thoughts – This might include yoga, meditation, listening to or playing music, art, writing, or reading.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – TMS therapy is a non-invasive treatment that stimulates your brain with magnetic impulses. In depression, certain brain regions can be underactive or overactive. TMS aims to correct this by bringing your brain cells back to a normal level of activity.
There are a multitude of evidence-based treatments for depression if you live with it and autism. It’s important to know when you need support and to reach out for help. Relief, management, and long-term recovery are always possible.
While TMS doesn’t treat autism, it is FDA-approved as a treatment for depression. If you’re interested in learning more, click here. Or contact HPR Treatment Centers! We have locations across the United States.