Sensory Scout Blog

Autism and Mental Health

Posted by Vanessa De Vera on

Autism and Mental Health

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re looking at the link between autism and mental health. First, it’s important to point out that individuals with autism can have excellent Mental Health! But it’s also worth noting that those on the spectrum are more likely to experience mental health challenges.

Autism is not a mental health condition. It’s a developmental disability that affects how people experience the world around them and communicate with others. But individuals with autism are more likely to struggle with disorders like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Keep reading for tips on how to support your autistic child's Mental Health and help them live their best life!

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is defined as an individual's condition with regard to their emotional and psychological well-being. Mental health can affect how a person acts, feels, and thinks. Additionally, mental health impacts how we relate to others, make decisions, and handle anxiety and stress. From childhood to adolescence to adulthood, our mental health affects us at every stage.
Just like anyone else, an autistic child can have good or bad mental health. While good mental health allows us to feel our best, poor mental health can cause isolation and distress. Every person is unique, so the way their mental health struggles manifest will be distinct.
Common mental health issues in autistic individuals include:
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Keeping an eye on your child’s mental health is one way to help them find the tools and strategies they need to succeed.


Identifying Signs of Poor Mental Health

Children with autism are at increased risk for mental health disorders. It can be helpful to know the signs of some of the most prevalent conditions.


Anxiety Symptoms

  • Hyperactivity
  • Unusual or repetitive noises or body movements (also called stimming)
  • Difficulty getting to sleep
  • Excessive fear or worry that interferes with everyday activities


OCD Symptoms

  • Rituals like repetitive washing of hands or “checking” something over and over
  • Hoarding objects
  • An obsession with germs or contamination
  • Unwanted thoughts or images that are intrusive


Depression and Other Mood Disorder Symptoms

  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Poor appetite
  • No interest in self-care
  • Sadness
  • Tantrums and cranky moods


ADHD Symptoms

  • Hyperactivity
  • Fidgeting
  • Lack of restraint
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Short attention span
  • Absent-mindedness


It’s possible that some of the above symptoms could be attributed to your child’s autism diagnosis. That’s why it’s important to look for changes in behavior and seek professional medical advice if you believe your child’s mental health is at risk.

Tips for Managing Mental Health

 Fortunately, parents can do plenty of things to help children with their mental health. And taking care of your child is a great reminder of how important your own mental health is, too! These tips apply to anyone, at any stage, no matter what the current condition of their mental health.

1.) Seek professional counsel - One of the best ways to practice good mental health hygiene is to talk to a professional. This is true for both you and your child! This can include talking to a doctor about how you feel, seeing a therapist, receiving a mental health diagnosis, and or taking medication.
2.) Stay active - Physical activity is a great way to support good mental health. And it doesn’t have to be intense! Walking, gardening, and cleaning up around the house all count as activities that help your body and mind feel better.
3.) Create a routine - As the parent of a sensory kid, you already know how important structure is to your child. But keeping routines can be a real challenge. If you go off the rails for a few days, it’s no big deal. Start over with your routine and remember that consistency and predictability go a long way in improving mental health.
4.) Connect with others - Isolation is both a symptom and a cause of declining mental health. Make time to do things together: tell stories, go on bike rides, vent your frustrations, volunteer in the community, build a sandcastle! Engaging, empathizing, and connecting to others is powerful.

Conclusion: Autism and Mental Health

When a child with autism has a mental health disorder, it’s called a co-occurring mental health disorder. These disorders come about as a result of a complex set of factors, including brain chemistry, genetics, and the severity of your child’s ASD. The good news is that your child’s mental health can be greatly improved with your help and support. Your doctor might suggest any number of solutions, including cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, or medication management.
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