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Mental Health and Autism

Man with mental health problemsThe term 'mental health problem' covers a wide range of problems which affect someone's ability to get on with their daily life.

Mental health problems can affect anyone, of any age and background, as well as having an impact on the people around them such as their family, friends and carers. (The Mental Health Foundation, 200?)

It is reported that many people on the autism spectrum have one or more mental health problems.

These may include anger and aggression, anxiety, catatonia, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, and self injurious behaviour.


Personal Accounts

“Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, people, places, sounds and sights. There seem to be no clear boundaries, order or meaning to anything. A large part of my life is spent trying to work out the pattern behind everything. Set routines, times, particular routes and rituals all help to get order into an unbearably chaotic life. Trying to keep everything the same reduces some of the terrible fear.” (Therese Jolliffe)

''Life is such a struggle; indecision over other things that other people refer to as trivial results in an awful lot of distress - if someone says 'We may go shopping tomorrow' or 'We will see what happens', they do not seem to realise that the uncertainty causes a lot of inner distress.'' Theresa Jolliffe

"Junior high was a real mess for me and then came puberty. My anxiety attacks came during puberty, and then all of my nerves started." Temple Grandin.

" I can only speak for myself when I say that if one subject is on my mind or I am fascinated by something, then literally everything else is insignificant -  I feel an overwhelming excitement in me that I cannot describe. I just have to talk about it and the irritation at being stopped can easily develop into raging fury." (Source: Luke Jackson, Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome)

Statistics

Mental health problems appear to be common in people with autism as well as their families and carers. For example

  • 84.1% of children with autism met the full criteria of at least one anxiety disorder.
  • 1 in 15 people with Asperger syndrome experience depression (Tantam, 1991).
  • 8% of children with Asperger syndrome and 10% of children with high-functioning autism were diagnosed with OCD.
  • People with Asperger’s syndrome are relatively more likely to have delusional beliefs than other people.
  • There is no evidence that people with autism are more likely than anyone else to develop schizophrenia

Causes

‘There is no single cause of mental health problems - the reasons why they develop are as complex as the individual. Mental health problems are more common in certain groups, for example, people with poor living conditions, those from ethnic minority groups, disabled people, homeless people and offenders. Sometimes people with mental health problems are discriminated against. This can lead to social problems such as homelessness, and may make the mental health problem worse.’ (NHS Direct, 2007)

Causes of mental health problems in people with autism

Many mental health problems in people with autism are likely to have the same causes as they do in other people. In addition, some people believe that

  • some people with Asperger syndrome – and their families – are biologically more prone to some mental health problems, especially anxiety, depression, and OCD
  • the underlying problems associated with autism, including social and communication difficulties, may make some people with autistic spectrum disorders more prone to mental health problems.
  • people with Asperger syndrome are more aware of the fact that they are different to other people, which may make them anxious or depressed.

Effects

Mental health problems can cause all sorts of problems for people with autism, their families and carers. For example, having a mental health problem can make it much more difficult to

  • learn new skills
  • form friendships and relationships
  • find and then keep a job
  • live independently in the community
  • cope with the grind of daily life

Best Practice

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced clinical guidance on the management and support of people on the autism spectrum.

This includes guidance on the management of mental health problems in adults and in children and young people.

Further information: NICE Guidance on Coexisting Mental Disdorder in Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Further information: NICE Clinical Guidance on Coexisting Problems in Children and Young People with Autism

Studies and Reviews

This page provides details of some of the most significant studies and reviews on mental health and autism. 

You can find more studies and reviews on mental health in our publications database.

If you know of any other studies we should include please email info@researchautism.net with the details. Thank you.

Please note that we are unable to supply publications unless we are listed as the publisher. However, if you are a UK resident you may be able to obtain them from your local public library, your college library or direct from the publisher.

Other Reading

This section provides details of other publications on mental health, autism and related issues. 

You can find more publications on mental health in our publications database.

If you know of any other publications we should include please email info@researchautism.net with the details. 

Please note that we are unable to supply publications unless we are listed as the publisher. However, if you are a UK resident you may be able to obtain them from your local public library, your college library or direct from the publisher.


Research Autism

Research AutismThe charity Research Autism has undertaken a variety of projects on mental health  and autism.  

For details of these projects, please see

Updated
02 Nov 2017