Autism spectrum disorder, low mood and depression: what to expect
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.
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 hurting themselves or hurt themselves more often – for example, with hand-biting
- find it harder than before to do everyday things in different situations or environments
- be obsessed with death, or talk about suicide or harming themselves.
Helping teenagers with autism spectrum disorder and depression
If your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is going through low mood or depression, you can start 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.
You can also use some practical strategies at home with your child.
You might notice your child focusing on negative thoughts – for example, ‘Nobody likes me’. In this situation, encourage your child to be a ‘thought detective’.
This involves finding facts that support your child’s negative thoughts and facts that don’t. Then you can help him to compare and contrast these facts.
For example, get your child to list all the people who do like her and how she knows. For example, ‘Mum likes me because she cooks my meals and tells me she loves me’. Your child should also list the people who don’t like her and how she knows. For example, ‘Ben doesn’t like me because he doesn’t play with me’. Then you can ask your child some questions like ‘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 him what he 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?’
Some other things that might help your child include:
- some social skills training
- exercises to help build healthy friendships
- a hobby or social activity
- a mentor or tutor to help her cope with schoolwork demands
- professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.