Welcome to day one on the 2017 #AtoZChallenge on neurodevelopmental disorders. I experience a great deal of anxiety around this challenge particularly because, like I said in my theme reveal post, I am currently in the re-assessment process. On the day I published my theme reveal post, I received an E-mail from the clinical neuropsychologist in charge of my second opinion answering questions I had taken to my psychological assessment. One of them concerned depression. I have suffered from depressive symptoms since childhood. I pointed this out, in a way to reassure her that depression is somewhat normal for me and hence she didn’t need to pull out the major depressive disorder criteria. A reaction i did not expect, was that depression presents itself differently in children and for this reason it might be that in fact my challenging behavior was a symptom of childhood-onset depression.
I share this story because, for today, I am focusing on anxiety and depression as they relate to autism. I will start by sharing a bit about how these conditions present themselves in typical children, as it might be I’m not autistic or suffering from any neurodevelopmental condition after all.
Depression and Anxiety in Typical Children
Depression and anxiety are serious conditions that are different from normal sadness or worry. Common symptoms in anyone with depression or anxiety include negative thoughts, excessive worrying, diffculty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. Particulalrly in youg children, depression and anxiety are however hard to recognize, as they may present differently than they would in older children or adults. For example, depression may show as irritability and anger, withdrawal, vocal outbursts or crying, or physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach problems. Anxiety can also present with physical symptoms or it may show as developmental regression. Some children with anxiety disorders may become clingy, fidget a lot or go to the toilet frequently.
It may be tempting to label a child who displays disruptive behavior, such as irritability, as “naughty”. However, treating behavior related to anxiety or depression like it is willful defiance, will only make it worse. Rather, if a child shows significantly more behavoral issues than their peers, it is advised to seek professional help.
Anxiety and Depression in Autistic Children
Many of the signs of childhood anxiety and depression are common in autistic children. It may therefore be hard to tell whether a symptom is due to anxiety or depression or it is due to autsm. For example, many autistic children (and adults) fidget as a way of regulating sensory input. Treating this and other sensory difficulties as anxiety will make it worse, as treatment for anxiety might include exposure. If a sensory stimulus is physically uncomfortable or painful rather than feared, no amount of exposure will cure this.
Social withdrawal is also a common sign of both childhood anxiety and depression and autism. However, to autistic children and adults, social interaction is often overwhelming, so again, withdrawal may be a coping strategy rather than a symptom.
Interestngly, some autistics may appear less autistic when they’re depressed or anxious. This may be the case if the autistic’s normal social interaction style is “active but odd”, eg. talking on and on about a particular topic without regard for the other person. For example, I once read about a teenage boy who usually kept on talking about trains. When he stopped perseverating on this topic, his carers assumed he was doing better. After all, he was showing less socially disruptive behavior. In reality, the boy was seriously depressed. He was, for him, withdrawn and had lost interest in what used to be a favorite topic of his.