Welcome to day thirteen in the A to Z Challenge. I am late once again to write my post, because I have still not mastered the skill of planning ahead and I was out of town all day.
Today’s post is on mental illness. Autism, of course, is not a mental illness; it’s a developmental disability. However, many people with autism experience mental health problems or mental illness. In fact, studies show that as many as 65% of people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a co-exisitng psychiatric disorder.
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems experienced by people on the autistic spectrum. It may be hard to diagnose these problems because of autistic people’s different ways of expressing and connecting to emotions. For example, I once read about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who suddenly stopped launching into lengthy monologues about his topic of interest. People thought that he was doing better, because, after all, he was displaying fewer autistic symptoms. On closer observation though, the boy was found to be severely depressed.
Autistic people might display a number of symptoms that indicate they are suffering from comorbid depression or anxieyt. For example, they may become completely withdrawn, may experience an increase in obsessional behaviors, or may have suicidal tendencies. Paranoia, aggression or substance abuse are also indicators that the person with autism is experiencing mental illness.
Treatments that are effective for anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disordeer in the general population, often are also effective for higher-functioning individuals with autism experiencing these symptoms. However, it is important that psychiatrists be aware of the person’s autism spectrum disorder. For example, if a person is experiencing depression because of loneliness, they may need to be provided with social skills training in addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication.
In the above paragraphs, I mainly talked about mental health problems in people with Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism. Of course, autistic people with an intellectual disability or those who are non-verbal, can also experience mental illness. In fact, it is thought that mental illness is more common in people with an intellectual disability than in the general population. In people with an intellectuall disability, it is hard to diagnose depression and anxiety. Depression may often be misdiagnosed as cognitive decline or dementia. People with an intellectual disability may show aggression as a symptom of depression too. This may lead to them being misdiagnosed and not getting adequate treatment.