Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of mental health conditions that affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
While ASD is a spectrum, meaning that the symptoms of the condition vary greatly from one individual to the next, the general characteristics of ASD are communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.
The exact cause of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is unknown. However, research suggests that genetics may play a role as well as environmental factors such as exposure to certain over-the-counter medications during pregnancy.
Additionally, certain medical conditions such as fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis have been associated with a higher risk of developing an ASD.
The use of alcohol and drug use during pregnancy has also been linked to an increased risk of an autism diagnosis.
While there is no one “correct” way to diagnose ASD, many of the symptoms of ASD are recognized by mental health professionals, who can then diagnose the person based on their history and observations.
Mental health conditions associated with ASD include depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), developmental delays, and sensory processing disorders.
Depression is the most common mental health disorder associated with ASD. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 60% of children with ASD suffer from depression.
1 Yet, many children with ASD do not receive treatment for depression because they don’t recognize that they are depressed. They may be unaware that their sadness and irritability are symptoms of depression.
Children with ASD may also have difficulty communicating their feelings. They may have difficulty expressing their emotions, especially anger.
They may also have difficulty recognizing that their feelings are connected to something outside of themselves, like a situation at school or a family member.
Children with ASD are also at an increased risk for depression because they are more likely to experience negative events and feelings than other children. These negative events and feelings may include:
- Traumatic experiences, such as abuse or loss of a loved one
- Physical injuries or medical problems
- Experiences that cause stress, such as a change in school or a family move
Anxiety disorders are also common in children with ASD. Children with ASD are more likely to experience anxiety than other children their age. Parents may notice that their child has trouble sleeping and eating, and may have trouble concentrating at school. Sometimes, the anxiety experienced by children with ASD can be so severe that it qualifies as an anxiety disorder.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition associated with ASD. While not all children with ASD will experience OCD, those who do have a higher risk of developing an OCD diagnosis than other children.
The symptoms of OCD include recurrent preoccupations with orderliness or symmetry, such as hand-washing or checking for door locks.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that can be associated with ASD. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to focus and concentrate.
Some people with ASD may have difficulty paying attention to the tasks at hand because they are so focused on what’s going on around them. This can make it difficult for them to complete tasks independently and may lead to frustration by others in their lives.
Children with autism spectrum disorders may also struggle with developmental delays, which include:
- An inability to speak or express themselves verbally
- An inability to understand verbal language or to use language appropriately
- Difficulty following directions
Sensory Processing Disorders
Sensory processing disorders include problems with vision, hearing, smell or touch. These disorders can make it difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders to process the information they are receiving from their senses.
For example, children with autism may have difficulty concentrating on a visual task because they are focused on something else in their environment. A child who is having trouble focusing on sounds may have difficulty understanding verbal instructions from an adult.
A child who is having trouble processing sensory information may also have trouble understanding what others are saying to them.
While it is possible for a child to experience all these mental health conditions, it is more common for them to experience one or two of them. These conditions can make it difficult for a child with autism spectrum disorders to function as well as they could if they were not struggling.