Autism, low mood and depression: what to expect
Autistic teenagers have a greater risk of low mood and depression than their typically developing peers.
This is because autistic teenagers 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 autistic teenagers to feel isolated, which might also cause or worsen depression.
Autistic teenagers can also experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children.
Signs and symptoms of low mood and depression in autistic teenagers
Autistic teenagers generally show the same symptoms of depression as typically developing teenagers.
But they might also:
- have more frequent or more severe repetitive or compulsive behaviour
- start to have, or have more, emotional outbursts 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.
If you’ve noticed these kinds of symptoms at home, it’s a good idea to ask your child’s teachers whether they’ve noticed them at school too. 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 your child might be being bullied or whether your child is finding the schoolwork too hard.
Strategies to help autistic teenagers with depression or low mood
You can use some practical strategies at home with your autistic child with low mood or depression.
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 your child to compare and contrast these facts.
- First, get your child to list all the people who do like your child and how they know. For example, ‘Mum likes me because she cooks my meals and tells me she loves me’.
- Next, get your child to list the people your child thinks don’t like them and how they know. For example, ‘Ben doesn’t like me because he doesn’t play with me’.
- 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 your child what they think 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 your child cope with schoolwork demands
- healthy eating, good sleeping habits and exercise
- professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.