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Autism and Depression

Individuals with autism are four times as likely to experience depression throughout their lives.

Rates of depression increase with intelligence and with age. This results in over 70% of adults with autism having mental health conditions, including both anxiety and depression. Sadly, these conditions often persist or worsen into adulthood.

What’s the Connection Between Autism and Depression?

There is a clear relationship between autism and depression, as these two conditions often co-occur. Although research has come a long way, there are still many unknown variables when aiming to understand the relationship between autism and depression.

Researchers have investigated this connection based on the overlapping symptoms of autism and depression. Before adults with autism receive their autism diagnosis, depression is often one of the first major concerns — which is why they contact a mental health expert. This relationship may also develop because of the situations they experience living with autism. For example, individuals with autism may be victims of bullying, they may realize that they differ from their peers, they may have a hard time making and maintaining meaningful friendships, and struggle with social and various other life skills.

Recommended reading: Animal Therapy for Autism: The Social, Emotional, and Physical Benefits

Signs of Depression in Autism

Spotting depression in someone with autism can be challenging. Many individuals with autism show little facial emotion. For many, this does not mean that they are depressed. However, this can make it more difficult to recognize depression in someone living with autism. In addition, many individuals with autism struggle with speech, so they may not verbally express how they feel. This makes depression among those with autism hard to diagnose.

That is why it’s important to recognize red flags in loved ones with autism. Look for changes in mood or behavior, such as changes in sleep and appetite. Since many of the symptoms of depression overlap with autism, such as social withdrawal, reduced motivation, low energy, and a reduced desire to communicate with others, it’s important to look for deviations from one’s regular patterns.

Autism and Depression Symptoms

There are symptoms of depression that are similar for everyone — whether you have autism or not.
As a loved one of someone with autism, be mindful of the following potential warning signs:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of anxiety or worry
  • Low motivation or a sudden loss of interest in activities
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Changes in both appetite or weight
  • Lack of energy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Social withdrawal
  • Self-harm
  • An increase in obsessional or repetitive behaviors

Causes of Depression in Adults with Autism

Disorders such as depression develop from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. 

However, researchers are still unsure of the role that autism plays in the mix. 

Research shows that unaffected siblings of people with autism (who share 50% of their genetic information), and half-siblings (who share 25%), face a 40% increased risk of depression compared to the general population. This suggests that family factors play a role, including household environment and genes. The researchers also found that those with autism are 2.5 times more likely to have depression compared to their neurotypical siblings. This shows that something is likely occurring beyond genetic and family household factors.

Researchers are trying to discover what places individuals with autism at a higher risk. 

Some believe the genetic makeup of an individual with autism contributes, whereas others lean more towards social problems and bullying.

The Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning Can Help

In addition to our specialized, evidence-based programs, the Adult Autism Center offers therapy, as well as valuable resources for you and your family. We work with each individual, helping them become the best version of themselves.

Contact our team to seek the support you need today!

smiling headshot photo of Heather Davis, clinical director editor of the adult autism center

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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