How ASD Impacts Mental Health and Everything Below It
Updated: Nov 15
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face unique challenges when it comes to their mental health. With a majority of people with ASD falling on the spectrum of the condition and not having identified subtypes or genes yet, this is an area where research continues. They might also exhibit specific sensitivities known as autistic traits. According to Dr. Gurneet Singh Sawnhey, “The changes in the brain are subtle and we mostly see them in the average across a lot of individuals because, in single individuals, just the normal differences from person to a person tend to be much more dramatic than the subtle systematic changes associated with autism.”
We know that many people who are diagnosed with ASD struggle with brain health issues. Because of this, individuals with ASD often face double the difficulty when it comes to handling these issues. However, based on what we know about how ASD impacts mental health, there are some things that we can address in order to support those who live with ASD and make sure they get the assistance they need.
In this article, we will explore how ASD impacts mental health and everything below it.
What is Mental Health?
If we want to understand the relationship between Autism and mental health, we first have to know what the term “mental health” means. Mental health is a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. The combination of these factors is what leads to positive mental health. They are usually categorized as positive traits, such as happiness, confidence, and optimism, as well as negative, such as anger, sadness, and stress.
For people who are experiencing positive mental health, all these factors are balanced and intermingled in a way that is helpful and healthy. However, people who have poor mental health or may be struggling with their mental health may be dealing with one or more of these factors that are out of balance.
How Does Autism Impact Mental Health?
When it comes to how Autism impacts mental health, the first thing to note is that Autism is not a mental disorder. Instead, it is what is known as a neurodevelopmental disorder. There are a number of ways that Autism impacts mental health.
For one, people with ASD may struggle to recognize or understand their emotions, which can impact their mental health. There is also something called a “mismatch” in the brains of people with Autism, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Autism can also impact the way that serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are released in the brain, which can lead to feelings of sadness, stress, and anxiety.
Depression in Adults with ASD
Depression is a common mental health concern in people with ASD, occurring in around 30% of adults with ASD. As with many mental health conditions, depression in ASD may be related to other factors in addition to Autism, including relationship, financial, or work-related issues. But even with these other factors taken into account, there is evidence to suggest that people with ASD are at a higher risk of developing depression.
It can be challenging to accurately diagnose and treat depression in this population because depression and ASD share a number of symptoms. Depression and ASD both have symptoms of irritability, social disengagement, low motivation, rumination, flat affect, and issues with eating and sleep. Very few ASD patients freely and honestly express depressive symptoms, such as despair, severe guilt, hopelessness, worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts. ASD patients' flat affect makes it harder for medical professionals to identify depression.
People with ASD may not be able to recognize or understand their own emotions, which can make it harder to cope with depression.
Anxiety in Adults with ASD
People with ASD may struggle with anxiety in a similar way to depression. This may be due to a number of factors. For one, people with ASD may have trouble recognizing or understanding their emotions, which can make anxiety harder to manage.
Additionally, a “mismatch” in the brains of people with ASD can make anxiety more common. Finally, anxiety can be made worse by the way serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are released in the brain. As with depression, anxiety in people with ASD may also be related to other factors, such as relationship, financial, or work-related issues.
Bipolar Disorder and Mania in Adults with ASD
Bipolar disorder, often known as manic-depressive disorder, is a mental health condition in which a person cycles between episodes of depression and episodes of mania. A person who is in a manic episode is often overly excited and prone to risky or impulsive behaviors. Bipolar disorder can occur in people with or without Autism. In fact, about 10% of people with ASD also experience bipolar disorder. This may be related to the fact that the “mismatch” in the brains of people with ASD can make it more likely for them to experience extreme sadness and manic episodes. This miscommunication in the brain may also lead to serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine being released at the wrong times, which can cause bipolar disorder.
When it comes to how Autism impacts mental health, there are a number of ways that the condition can make mental health more difficult. For one, people with ASD may struggle to recognize or understand their emotions, which can make it harder to cope with poor mental health. Finally, the way serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are released in the brain can make it more difficult to manage poor mental health.
Unfortunately, people with ASD may not always receive the help that they need. In fact, people with ASD are less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety than people without ASD. This highlights the importance of having open and honest conversations about mental health and having the tools to recognize problematic mental health and get help.
Dr. Gurneet Singh Sawhney
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