Children and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often develop mental health conditions. While autism is a developmental disorder, autism and mental health issues can both be present in an individual. It is not uncommon for a child with autism to have a mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or depression. Research suggests that children on the autism spectrum are at an increased risk for mental health conditions compared to their neurotypical peers.
Sometimes managing these co-occurring conditions with autism requires medication or behavioral therapy, which can help a child cope with symptoms and control their behavior. In many cases, symptoms can be reduced and managed with these treatments.
A mental health crisis can affect people of any age, background, or gender. Still, when occurring in an individual with autism, mental disorders can result in death, missed education, loss of employment, and housing problems. Poor mental health can result in financial strain, exhaustion, and isolation. And caring for an autistic person who has a mental disorder also affects parents, families, advocates, and caregivers alike.
Research shows that identifying a mental health crisis early, or the potential for one, is vital for people with autism. A psychiatrist or mental health counselor must be able to discriminate, recognize and differentiate a person’s autism from their mental disorder. Below we have narrowed down some critical notions to understand when evaluating autism and mental health.
What Is a Mental Health Crisis?
The most concise definition of a mental health crisis says it involves two things:
- An acute psychiatric event such as a suicide attempt, running away, self-injury, impulse behavior, etc.—anything that produces consequences requiring immediate intervention.
- A lack of resources needed to resolve the crisis immediately. An example would be a guardian’s inability to manage a self-injuring meltdown.
Increased Risk of Mental Disorders with Autism
Clinical experience and research demonstrate that many young people with autism experience considerable behavioral challenges. As mentioned earlier, these can include self-injuring behavior, running away, and aggression. It is also critical to recognize how much of the autistic population has psychiatric disorders like ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorders. Accurately identifying the right mental health conditions can be the first step toward successful treatment.
Other issues like disrupted sleep, eating, and GI disorders can contribute to crisis episodes in individuals with autism. Young people with autism also experience high emergency room visits and inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations.
Autism and Mental Health Treatment
There is no single intervention for autism and mental health issues. It takes mental health professionals and autism therapists working together to address an autistic client’s unique needs. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is an evidence-based, data-driven behavior modification treatment for autism. However, proper intervention for autism and mental health disorders may include a psychiatrist or psychologist, especially if medicinal intervention is required. It is crucial that these professionals understand the crisis, what it looks like, and how to intervene. Asking questions of your providers can help you better understand how they may respond to your situation.
While no medicine cures autism, some medications, such as atypical antipsychotic medications, are prescribed for aggression or for managing agitation. On the other hand, a psychologist may implement cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety. It’s imperative to select services that complement each other and help the individual in the different ways they may need support. In many cases, it’s beneficial that providers work as a team to ensure that all the individual’s needs are met across environments. Providers must make aid more accessible for children and families with autism and mental health issues. Preventive care should be emphasized whenever possible.
According to research, most psychiatrists who serve children with autism and mental health issues feel that these clients lack appropriate professional support when in desperate need or crisis. Assistance from multiple mental health professionals might help manage the crisis level and evaluate the range of interventions required. Additionally, psychiatrists have communicated low confidence in the ability of emergency responders and hospital staff to lessen crisis levels. There is a definite need for more autism-tailored support services.
Autism and Mental Health Advice for Parents and Advocates
There are a lot of unique tools and resources available for families of an individual with autism and mental health issues. Becoming familiar with crisis-Intervention material will help you understand how you can help your neurodivergent loved one.
Helping autistic children cope with, regulate, and process their emotions can aid them in managing stress levels and communicating their needs. Providers working with the children must empower them to help themselves. A child with autism will have specific needs. Understanding these needs and learning to deescalate dangerous situations can help save lives and lessen hospitalizations for this vulnerable population.
Having a crisis plan determined ahead of time will also help with autism and mental health disorders. Setting up expectations and telling social stories can help the child process the world around them, even when they feel panicked. Understanding how the world works can make it less of a scary place.
New Hope for Understanding Autism and Mental Health
New studies examine autism and mental health crises. Researchers work to understand what features, characteristics, and environmental factors increase the likelihood of mental health crises in those with autism. A deeper understanding of disorders co-occurring with autism helps us to know how we can make the world a safer place for people with autism and mental health issues.
If your loved one does have autism and mental illnesses, do not lose hope. Remain optimistic during this stressful time, knowing recovery will be a team effort. Your endurance will be a crucial component of your child’s treatment!
Nurture and foster the relationships between you and your child’s providers. Encourage communication, stay open-minded to their suggestions, and foster dialogue among your child’s team. Be sure to report progress and be vocal about the behaviors you see at home.
Above everything, take action! Remember that the behaviors you see at 6 years old will be the behaviors you see at 26 if left unchecked! Remain diligent, and remember you are an autism superhero!
ABA Therapy for Autism
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy helps people with autism and their families find success in their developmental journeys. ABA Centers of America is at the forefront of the autism treatment field. If your child has been diagnosed with autism and mental health disorders, learn more about how we can help. Call us at 844-969-4222 for a free, no-obligation consultation. Or message us for more information.