Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions. The definition and criteria of autism has changed over the years, and will most likely continue to do so. It is usually characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and sometimes nonverbal communication. Because society grossly misunderstands ASD, many children are misdiagnosed as having ASD when in reality another issue is present. Misdiagnoses can be harmful, as the individual may therefore not get the help and support they need. Research indicates that those with ASD may also have an increased risk in developing a mental health disorder. According to Rogers Behavioral Health, 70% of kids with ASD have at least one mental health disorder, with 41-50% of kids having two or more mental health conditions. Knowledge of this risk is critical to getting people the care they need to thrive.
Breaking Down The Myths About Autism
It is important to recognize the common misconceptions about autism, as many people are unaware of what autism actually is.
The most common myth about autism is that all people with autism have ‘savant’ skills. Although a large number of people with autism have amazing talents and skills in certain areas, not everyone with autism is a genius. The reality is that approximately only 0.05 percent of people with autism have an extreme talent. All humans have strengths and weaknesses, and people with autism are no different.
A second common myth is that people with autism are antisocial. Although they may need more support with social skills and interact differently, most people with autism still do enjoy connection and having relationships. Body language, tone of voice, and sarcasm can be difficult to read, making it harder to make friends. Taking time to get to know people with autism and understand how they see the world makes all the difference in building relationships with them.
A third common myth is that children with autism just need more discipline. However, autism is a developmental disability, it is not a behavioral issue. The behaviors a child with autism may experience is not due to a lack of discipline, rather they may be struggling with some type of challenge associated with their disorder.
With social media apps growing into mental health support networks, they have served as a gateway for self-diagnosis. Within the past year, teens and young adults have started to use apps like TikTok to self diagnose conditions, including autism. This is largely problematic, as many social media creators post unhelpful and incorrect information about mental and physical health conditions. Although the growing inclusive community on social media has helped reduce the stigma, it is important to recognize the limitations of social media when it comes to diagnosing mental and physical health conditions.
Common Comorbid Mental Health issues and the Interaction
Autism has a number of co-occurring mental health conditions, and people with autism are more likely to experience common mental health disorders compared to people who don’t have autism. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed comorbidities. This could be due to negative attitudes from other people, differences in interacting with the world, misdiagnosis, and barriers to support.
Children with autism often struggle in social situations, leading to difficulties in forming friendships. Due to an extreme fear of new people and social situations, social anxiety specifically, is very common among people with autism. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and low self esteem, increasing the risk of anxiety and depression. There are many symptoms of autism that overlap with symptoms of depression. Because of this overlap, oftentimes recognizing depression in autistic individuals is missed. Some of these overlapping symptoms include difficulty identifying mood, a constricted range of facial expression, sleep problems, and social withdrawal.
Another common comorbid disorder is ADHD, which affects an estimated 30-60% of people with autism. Similarly to depression, there are many overlapping symptoms between ADHD and autism, making it more difficult to receive an accurate diagnosis. Some of these shared symptoms include inattention, atypical movements, social difficulties, and differences in learning styles.
The co-occurrence of mental health disorders among people with autism can be hard to understand, and many people may assume that a specific behavior is a result of autism rather than a mental health disorder. It is critical to bring awareness to the prevalence of mental health disorders co-occuring with autism, so that individuals affected do not have to suffer in silence.
Effective Mental Health Support for Teens with Autism
It is important to recognize that teens with autism may have an additional set of needs in managing their mental health struggles. There are simple things that teens with autism can do to cope with their unique struggles. This includes walking outside to release nervous energy, practicing self care, and remembering to take breaks. Digital mental health platforms can also help by providing breathing exercises, meditation, and education. With apps being so personalized and easily accessible, it can be a great way for a teen with autism struggling with mental health to seek help. Other actions one can take to support mental health include journaling, participating in sports, a job, improving sleep, and creating positive relationships with trusted people.
It can also be beneficial to seek help from other people, including family, friends, and professionals. A beneficial type of professional therapy for teens with autism is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that how we think, feel, and act are all related. CBT teaches individuals to replace negative thinking with something more positive. This influences how they then feel, which then affects their actions. Professionals who have experience working with people on the autism spectrum understand the helpful adaptations needed in therapy that can increase the effectiveness.
Another resource for teens with autism with mental health disorders is joining support groups. Whether online or in person, these groups can improve self esteem associated with ASD and related mental health struggles. They can also foster connection and belonging, which in many teens with autism is missed due to feeling different from peers.
If the situation is appropriate, increasing independent living skills for the teen can also be beneficial. For example, skills like telling time, cooking, and using public transportation. Although these skills may be less relevant in the moment, they will directly relate to the teen’s overall mental health in the future.
Neolth and Youth with Autism
Neolth is a digital stress and mental health support program for teens and young adults with any and all struggles and experiences. We’re on a mission to help youth stress less, build resilience, and become a part of our compassionate community. Our app helps youth when they’re feeling overwhelmed with self-guided content, personalized for your mental health journey. Neolth’s content and education is much more accurate coming from mental health experts and youth with lived mental health experience, compared to social media creators and influencers. Neolth has a growing community of Student Ambassadors from 170 schools and works with schools to improve access to mental health support for their students and teachers alike. You can learn more at neolth.com or sign up today at cloud.neolth.com.
About the Author:
Ali Green (she/her) is an Editorial Intern at Neolth, and a rising undergraduate senior at Emory University. As a student studying psychology, she found a huge passion for mental health. Upon discovering Neolth and then becoming accepted as an editorial intern, she became super excited to be able to bring awareness, education, and resources to students worldwide. She believes that it is important to create more accessible education and support around mental health issues to reduce stigmas and increase understanding. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, graphic design, and reading.