Put simply, autism is not a mental health illness. It is often an erroneous assumption and misdiagnosis that arises from the fact that autism and mental health problems share similar symptoms.
Read on to learn the correct diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
Is Autism a Mental Health Diagnosis?
Autism is a developmental disorder. It is also a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines developmental disabilities as conditions that may lead to physical, cognitive, or behavioral problems.
The symptoms are present at birth or during the child’s developmental period and persist for the rest of their lifetime.
Autism and Mental Health Problems
Just like ordinary folks, people diagnosed with autism may have good cognitive performance. But they are more prone to developing mental health challenges. Studies show that 7 in 10 persons with autism experience mental health problems.
Some of the common mental health problems affecting persons with autism include:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Learning disability and challenges
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Reasons for Mental Health Issues in Those With Autism
There’s limited research on why people with autism develop mental health issues. But some of the touted potential reasons include:
Negative Attitudes from Other People
Non-autistic people look at autism through the lens of annoyance, disappointment, and shame. They may not understand or accept the unique differences of people with autism.
In severe cases, autism presents disruptive antisocial behavior where affected people may repeatedly flick their fingers, scream, hit, or injure themselves. They may also invade other people’s personal space, bringing panic and discomfort. This sort of behavior attracts stigma and discrimination from non-autistic people.
Differences in Interacting With the World
For example, bright lights may overload their senses, causing them to feel stressed. A noisy place may also activate their auditory hypersensitivity, leading to meltdowns.
Rarely is autism the first medical diagnosis. In most cases, children with autism receive several other diagnoses first. For example, they may go through tests for mental disorders such as ADHD.
The assumption is the child’s symptoms are not interrelated challenges. So, the misconception is that autism-related behaviors are individual problems. And they point to another mental health problem.
Unfortunately, children with autism portray certain behaviors, like mental health symptoms, which often lead to the misdiagnosis of autism as a mental health problem. Misdiagnosis makes it challenging to get the needed support. The affected end up feeling stressed, depressed, and anxious.
Barriers to Support
For people with autism and mental health issues, accessing care is always a weary battle.
Here are some of the fundamental obstacles to receiving support:
- It is difficult to get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis as an adult. That’s because there’s no set procedure for diagnosing autism in adults. So, adult autism specialists are hard to find.
- Social care and mental health specialists may lack adequate awareness to determine the needs and support of people with autism.
- Social care services may not be confident enough to offer support. They will instead refer you to specialized services that may be expensive or difficult to access. Such obstacles can affect your mental health.
- You may have autism, but you’re gifted and coherent. So, care professionals may believe you don’t need social support.
- In some cases, people with autism may not receive the healthcare they need due to difficulties in communicating with their physicians. These challenges can stem from anxiety or difficulties in verbal communication. Many people with autism also dislike using telephones and voicemail.
Supporting Someone With Autism and Mental Health Issues
Young people with ASD may have difficulty communicating their emotions to others. If you’re concerned about the mental health of your autistic friend, it’s a good idea to chat with them.
Use the following tips to have a more productive conversation:
Talk in a Calming Environment
People with autism may experience sensitivities to a wide range of stimuli. They may experience hypersensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, or powerful smells. Such sensory sensitivities are distracting and won’t promote a positive conversation.
You can accommodate their sensory issues by conversing in a calming environment, like a quiet coffee shop.
Ask Closed Direct Questions
Something like “Have you eaten today?” is a closed direct question that people with autism can quickly answer. But open-ended questions like “How was your day?” are harder for them to answer.
Find Out How They Prefer to Communicate
Consider asking your friend how they wish to communicate. Do they prefer to write a text? Maybe they want to talk on the phone? Or do they prefer to have some time beforehand to go through their answers?
Find out their preferred method of communication so you can adapt to their needs.
Give Them Time to Answer
People with autism often take more time to think about the questions they’re asked and how to respond to them. You may misconstrue their silence and assume they did not hear you and repeat the question.
Instead, be patient and give your pal more time to answer back.
Direct Them to Professional Help
Help your friend improve their social skills by engaging them in conversations. Also, encourage them to look after themselves.
You can also suggest that they seek specialized help from various services and agencies, like the following:
- National charities
- Local support groups
- Social media and forums
- The local council
The Bottom Line
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects learning, thinking, and behavior. But since people with autism are more prone to developing mental health problems, they’re often misdiagnosed as having a mental health illness.
Due to a lack of awareness, people with autism often get judged by the public, which makes them feel less confident and traumatized. Therefore, if you have a friend or a child with autism, it’s important to learn how to address their needs. You should be friendly with them, encourage them, and direct them to specialized care services if needed.
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- Understanding the Intersection of Autism and Alexithymia - September 5, 2023