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Every once in a while we may find ourselves feeling a bit sad or overwhelmed. Maybe it’s a heavy feeling or just a general sad feeling. These kinds of feelings are completely normal when we experience something sad or when we are tired, overworked, or even bored. These feelings are usually fleeting, and with a little activity to distract us, some sleep, or even just a little passing of time, most of us snap out of it and resume our normal activities and feel pretty good.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Depression at the clinical level becomes problematic when it is persistent. Feeling down and hopeless should not be something that we carry around for long periods of time. If sadness and emotional heaviness hang around for too long, it can be a red flag that you or someone you love is dealing with clinical depression.
Some of the most common symptoms of depression can include:
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Significant weight fluctuations (up or down on the scale)
- Difficulty with sleeping (too much or too little)
- Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Trouble with concentration
- Thoughts of suicide
- Loss of appetite
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Mood swings
There is no one-size-fits-all description of depression because it is situational, and people respond differently to circumstances that cause depression. These are just some of the commonly observed symptoms. There can be seasonal depression or even psychotic depression that may include delusions. Even hormonal depression can become problematic for some people.
How common is depression in people with autism?
Sadly, depression is highly prevalent in people with autism. People with autism are not without feelings or oblivious to their surroundings- in fact, the exact opposite is true. People with autism are acutely aware of their surroundings and see and hear more than some typical folks would give them credit for. Just like anyone else, people with autism can have their feelings hurt, and perhaps at an even deeper level than their typically developing peers.
Studies have revealed that people with autism can be 4 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression than their neurotypical peers. More than 70% of autistic youth have mental health conditions which can persist or become more intense as they mature into adulthood- this includes depression.
Is There a Link Between Autism and Depression?
For many years people have speculated that there might be a link between children diagnosed with autism or Aspergers, and depression feelings. Now we know that there is a definite link between autism and depression. The most common factors that cause depression in people with autism are the feelings of rejection that many people with autism can experience when they are bullied, excluded, ridiculed, or isolated from their peers.
Let’s face it- it can be difficult for someone with autism to fit in with social groups. If a child with autism has difficulty making social connections they will eventually start to feel very alone. “One study found that loneliness is the strongest statistical predictor of depression. ‘Getting your social needs met is important- autism can get in the way of that,’ says clinical psychologist Katherine Gotham…”
As children with autism become adults with autism this becomes progressively harder and transcends into workplace struggles and the adult versions of bullying, exclusion, ridicule, or even being completely ostracized from a group or workplace. Depression is likely to occur after an extended period of feeling rejected, worthless, and hopeless.
What Does Depression in Autism Look Like?
One of the main characteristics of people with autism is their difficulty or complete inability to express emotions. Depression is an internal affliction and while most of us can cry out or verbally express feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, or whatever feelings come with depression- people with autism can really struggle with identifying how they feel, why they feel the way they do, and how to put what they are feeling into words in order to get help.
On the other end of the spectrum, people with autism also tend to ruminate on things that bother them. Feelings of being overwhelmed, sad, frustrated, or confused can become a trigger for emotional meltdowns or displays of anxiety.
Much like their neurotypical peers, children and adults with autism tend to process their feelings in a multitude of ways. It takes someone who is close to the person with autism to see noticeable shifts in mood or behavior that might signal an ongoing problem with depression.
The tendency for children with autism to be socially withdrawn can sometimes be easily dismissed because it is perceived as part of their autism. It sometimes takes more obvious signs such as fatigue, stomachaches, self-injurious behavior, agitation, aggression, or general restlessness to clue others in that there is something deeper going on emotionally.
If you have concerns that your child might be feeling chronically depressed- keep a watchful eye on these commonly observed symptoms of depression:
- Obsessive Behavior
- Stimming (Or Hand-Flapping)
- Social Withdrawal
- Oppositional and Aggressive Behavior
- Sleep Disturbance
- Low Self-Esteem
How Does Depression Affect Someone with Autism?
Depression affects people with autism just like it would affect their neurotypical peers- only with more intensity as they mature and deal with their internal emotional struggles.
Given enough time, depression can cause a person with autism to disengage and isolate himself/herself to avoid the bullying and rejection that he/she commonly experiences in school and social settings. Later, in adulthood, this depression can lead to difficulty in the workplace and it isn’t uncommon for people with autism to go from one job to another as they fail to connect with co-workers or superiors.
For many adults and even adolescents with autism, this can provoke deep feelings of worthlessness and potentially cause thoughts of suicide. Because of this, it is important to be watchful for signs of depression and get help right away if they show signs of isolating and disengaging from everyone and everything around them. We are social beings and people with autism desire to be social as well. They just have a hard time expressing it and initiating it.
How to Help
The best way to help someone with autism work through feelings of depression is to support him/her in as many ways as you can. Look for social support groups and employment support groups. Keeping people with autism feeling productive and socially involved with others can help to ward off feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts. This applies to both neurotypical and autistic people.
Teaching children and adults with autism to ask for help during times when feelings are overwhelming or unmanageable is also helpful. Show them the choices that they can access for help whether it is a relative or even a phone number to a helpline.
Therapy can be helpful but psychotherapy for people with autism is limited because of communication deficiencies, and because people with autism often struggle to identify their feelings at the onset. This is a trait known as alexithymia.
Some very practical ways to socially and emotionally support a person with autism who may be feeling suicidal are:
- Be available to the person even if he/she refuses to talk
- Inform others (friends, teachers) about the situation
- Be a good listener to their stories to help identify a trigger
- Don’t dismiss negative thoughts
- Remind him/her you are always there to talk and/or listen
- Take a trip together
- Teach him/her the number to call when he/she has suicidal thoughts when you are not around
If a child or adult with autism has a crisis (self-injury or harm to others) that is beyond your immediate ability to help, there are more aggressive forms of intervention that you can try in a more professional setting:
- Psychiatric treatment
What You Can Do About Depression
Prevention is always the best approach to any potential problem with mental or physical health. The best way to prevent depression is to teach your child how to manage emotions. Teach coping skills for intense feelings and help them to channel their emotions into more productive things like physical activity, creative arts, reading, or listening to calming music.
Keep communication frequent and supportive. Give them your full attention, model direct eye contact, and listen for any signs of insecurity, anxiety, fear, worthlessness, or any other feeling that expresses a lack of self-confidence. Make sure they feel secure enough to talk to you about whatever is bothering them and make sure that they feel loved and supported by everyone that they are in contact with at home.
Teaching a child with autism how to manage emotions and feelings in a more productive way can help him/her at home, at school, and later in the workplace to express himself/herself more effectively.
Start them as early as possible with a good social skills group like the one we have available at Circle Care Services in New Jersey. We have a safe environment that is all-inclusive and teaches everyone in the group how to interact in ways that are kind, supportive, and effective as they learn how to communicate in social settings. Contact us today for a free consultation, and we’d be more than happy to answer any of your questions.
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