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 feelings of isolation or loneliness, which might also cause or worsen depression in autistic teenagers.
Autistic teenagers can also experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children.
Signs 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 meltdowns or aggressive behaviour
- start to be or be more irritable 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 self-harm.
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.
If your child tells you they want to hurt themselves or want to die, seek professional help as soon as possible. Call Lifeline on 131 114 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or encourage your child to call. If your child is willing to go, take them to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.
Getting help for autistic teenagers with signs of low mood or depression
If you’re concerned about your autistic child’s low mood or your think your child has depression, talk to your GP or paediatrician. They can refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist or other health professional, who can help your child.
Depression is unlikely to go away on its own, but it can be treated.
If your autistic child has low mood or depression, there are also practical strategies you can use as part of everyday life. These include ‘thought detectives’, ‘the worst thing’, social skills training, healthy lifestyle changes and more.
‘Thought detectives’: strategy to help autistic teenagers 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’: strategy to help autistic teenagers with low mood or depression
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 wrong answer in class, everyone will laugh and think I’m dumb’. Ask, ‘Would that be the worst thing ever? Would the class remember that you gave the wrong answer the next day or week?’
Social skills, lifestyle changes and other things to help with low mood or depression
Other things that might help your autistic child with depression include:
- social skills training
- exercises to help build healthy friendships
- a hobby like craft or photography
- social, recreational or educational activities outside of school like language or music classes
- a mentor or tutor to help your child cope with schoolwork demands
- healthy eating, good sleeping habits and exercise.
Looking after yourself when your autistic child has depression
If your autistic child has depression, you might be focused on looking after your child. But it’s also important to look after your own health and wellbeing. When you’re well and healthy, you can help your autistic child grow and thrive. You can look after yourself by eating healthy food, doing regular physical activity and getting as much rest as you can.
And if you feel overwhelmed or like you can’t cope, you might want to see your GP. They might refer you to a psychologist or another mental health professional who can help you find positive ways to manage your feelings.
Getting support from your local community can often be a big help too.