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If your teenager with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is struggling with low moods or depression, there are some practical strategies you can use at home. But if you’re really worried about your child, seek help from a health professional.
Teenage girl with arms crossed looking grumpy

Autism spectrum disorder and depression: what to expect

Research has shown that teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a greater risk of low mood and depression than their typically developing peers.

This is because teenagers with ASD might:

  • realise for the first time that they’re ‘different’ from their peers
  • find it hard to cope with increasing academic pressure and expectations
  • find it hard to understand social rules and expectations, make friends and fit in socially.

These social difficulties can lead to teenagers with ASD feeling isolated, which might also cause or worsen depression.

Teenagers with ASD can also experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children. Helping your child to notice anxious feelings and use coping strategies can help.

Signs and symptoms of low mood and depression in teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

Teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) generally show the same symptoms of depression as typical teenagers.

But they might also:

  • have more frequent or more severe repetitive or compulsive behaviour
  • start to have, or have more, tantrums or aggressive behaviour
  • start to be, or be more, cranky or agitated
  • start or do more self-hurting behaviour, such as hand-biting
  • find it harder than before to do everyday things in different situations or environments
  • be obsessed with death
  • talk about suicide or harming themselves.
If you’re concerned about your child, talk to your GP, who can put you in contact with an appropriate professional.

Helping teenagers with autism spectrum disorder and depression

If your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is going through low mood or depression, a good place to start is by asking your child’s teachers whether they’ve noticed any of the behaviour or symptoms that you’ve seen at home.

The teachers might be able to give you some insight into your child’s change in mood. For example, they can tell you about how your child is going socially at school, whether she might be being bullied or whether she’s finding the schoolwork too hard.

Thought detectives
You might notice your child focusing on negative thoughts – for example, ‘Nobody likes me’. In this situation, encourage him to be a ‘thought detective’.

This involves finding facts that support his negative thoughts and facts that don’t. Then help him to compare and contrast these facts.

For example, get him to list all the people who do like him and how he knows (‘Mum likes me because she cooks my meals and tells me she loves me’) and those who don’t like him and how he knows (‘Ben doesn’t like me because he doesn’t play with me’). Then ask your child some questions such as, ‘Have you ever asked Ben to play with you? What did he say?’

The worst thing
If your child gets stuck on negative thoughts, try asking her what she thinks is the worst thing that could happen. Then you could talk about whether the ‘worst’ is actually that bad.

For example, your child might say, ‘If I give a talk in class, everyone will laugh and think I’m dumb’. Ask, ‘Would that be the worst thing ever? Would the class remember your talk the next day or week?’

Other tips
Some other things that might help your child include:

Looking after yourself with healthy food, regular exercise and enough rest will keep you in good shape to care for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If your feelings about your child’s disability are sometimes overwhelming, it might help to know there are positive ways to manage them. Getting support from your local community can often be a big help too.
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  • Last Updated 30-01-2013
  • Last Reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed using material from La Trobe University and Amaze and in collaboration with Diane Jacobs at La Trobe University.
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