Confronting Mental Health Disorders in Autism

Explore the intersection of mental health disorders and autism, and learn about supportive treatments.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 25, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Before tackling the complex relationship between autism and mental health disorders, a fundamental understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) itself is important.

Introduction to ASD

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins in early childhood and continues into adulthood, causing difficulties in various aspects of life - socially, in school, and at work. ASD often manifests in the first year of a child's life, with some children showing normal development initially, only to exhibit autism symptoms between 18 and 24 months of age.

Children with ASD exhibit a broad range of cognitive abilities. Some may struggle with learning and have signs of lower than normal intelligence. Conversely, other children with the disorder may have normal to high intelligence. These children often learn quickly but may struggle with applying their knowledge in everyday life and adjusting to social situations [1].

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), has established specific diagnostic criteria for ASD. According to the DSM-5, for a child to be diagnosed with ASD, they must exhibit persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction, along with at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors.

The DSM-5 further clarifies that individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Moreover, individuals with marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not otherwise meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder, should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder [2].

In the context of mental health disorders in autism, understanding the diagnostic criteria for ASD is fundamental. It allows for the differentiation between symptoms of ASD and symptoms of comorbid mental health disorders, which may overlap. This distinction is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment planning.

Early Detection and Diagnosis

In the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), early detection and diagnosis are instrumental in ensuring effective management and support. Recognizing the early signs of ASD and understanding the diagnostic process can help pave the way for timely interventions and treatments.

Signs in Infants

It is important to note that babies develop at their own pace, and many do not follow exact timelines found in some parenting books. However, children with ASD usually show some signs of delayed development before the age of two years, particularly in language skills and social interactions.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, some signs of autism in infants up to 12 months of age can include:

  • Limited or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in faces or people
  • Not responding to their name or familiar sounds
  • No babbling or pointing by 12 months

Signs in Toddlers

As toddlers grow, the signs of autism may become more apparent. Up to 2 years of age, some signs may include:

  • No meaningful two-word phrases that don’t involve imitating or repeating
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions
  • Repeated behaviors or body movements (e.g., hand-flapping, rocking)

Diagnostic Process

Diagnosing autism involves a comprehensive evaluation process as there is no simple medical test for the condition. Healthcare professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to evaluate and diagnose autism. They observe the child's behavior and development, and often interview the parents. It's also common for doctors to perform physical and neurological tests to rule out other conditions that might cause similar symptoms [3].

This comprehensive evaluation typically includes:

  • A developmental screening during a "well-child" doctor’s visit
  • A comprehensive evaluation involving a team of doctors and other health professionals
  • Genetic testing to identify any possible genetic disorders

Remember, an early diagnosis combined with prompt and appropriate treatment can greatly improve an autistic person's quality of life. If you suspect your child may have ASD, consult with a healthcare professional who can guide you through the diagnostic process.

Treatment Approaches for ASD

There are various treatment approaches for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These include Behavioral Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. Each of these therapies has its own unique benefits and methods.

Behavioral Therapy (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a common behavioral approach used in treating symptoms of ASD. It is widely accepted among educators and healthcare professionals due to its evidence-based effectiveness. ABA encourages desired behaviors and discourages undesired behaviors to improve a variety of skills. The progress of individuals undergoing ABA is consistently tracked and measured, allowing for adjustments and modifications as needed. This type of therapy is designed to help individuals with ASD improve social interactions, learn new skills, and reduce behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and Language Therapy is another common developmental therapy used for individuals with ASD. It is aimed at improving the person's understanding and use of speech and language. This therapy caters to individuals who communicate verbally, as well as those who communicate through signs, gestures, pictures, or electronic devices. The goal of Speech and Language Therapy is to enhance communication skills, thereby improving the ability of individuals with ASD to form relationships and interact effectively with others [4].

Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy for individuals with ASD focuses on teaching skills to help them live as independently as possible. This includes activities such as dressing, eating, bathing, and relating to people. Occupational therapists work with individuals to develop a range of skills necessary for daily living. By improving these skills, individuals with ASD can gain greater independence and improve their quality of life [4].

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a psychological approach that can assist people with ASD in coping with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. CBT involves identifying goals and changing how individuals think about situations to alter their reactions. It helps individuals with ASD to manage their feelings, understand others' perspectives, and solve problems. This therapy can be particularly beneficial in addressing the mental health disorders associated with autism.

Each of these treatment approaches can play a critical role in managing ASD and improving the lives of individuals affected by this disorder. It's important to remember that every person with ASD is unique, and the effectiveness of a treatment can vary from person to person. Therefore, a comprehensive and individualized approach is often the most effective way to support individuals with ASD.

Complementary and Alternative Treatments

While traditional treatment approaches play an essential role in managing autism spectrum disorder (ASD), some families and individuals turn to complementary and alternative treatments. These can often be used alongside traditional approaches and may include special diets and supplements, animal and arts therapy, as well as mindfulness and relaxation techniques. However, it's crucial to consult with healthcare professionals before implementing any such treatments [4].

Special Diets and Supplements

Special diets and supplements are among the alternative treatments considered for individuals with ASD. These treatments aim to address specific dietary concerns or provide additional nutrients. For instance, some individuals might benefit from a gluten-free or casein-free diet, while others might need supplements to address nutritional deficiencies. Again, it's important for families to consult with healthcare professionals before implementing any special diets or supplements [4].

Animal and Arts Therapy

Animal therapy, such as interacting with therapy animals, is being explored as a complementary treatment for individuals with ASD. This therapy aims to improve social skills, communication, and emotional well-being. While some individuals have reported positive experiences, further research is needed to determine its effectiveness and appropriate implementation.

Arts therapy, including music, dance, and art therapy, has also been used as a complementary treatment for individuals with ASD. These therapies focus on creative expression and can help improve communication, social interaction, and emotional well-being. However, more research is needed to understand their effectiveness and best practices [4].

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, are being explored as complementary treatments for individuals with ASD. These techniques aim to reduce stress, anxiety, and improve overall well-being. They offer potential as non-invasive, non-pharmacological interventions that could enhance traditional treatment approaches. However, as with other complementary treatments, more research is needed to determine their effectiveness and appropriate use in individuals with ASD.

While the exploration of complementary and alternative treatments for ASD is encouraging, it's crucial for families and individuals to make informed decisions based on available evidence and in consultation with healthcare professionals. Implementing these treatments should always be done with the goal of enhancing the individual's quality of life and well-being.

Challenges and Support for Individuals with ASD

Living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) presents various challenges, particularly in social interaction and communication. It is crucial to address these issues from an early stage and manage any comorbid conditions to ensure comprehensive care.

Social Interaction and Communication

Adolescents and young adults with ASD often face difficulties in establishing and maintaining friendships, communicating with their peers and adults, or understanding expected behaviors in academic or professional settings. Some individuals with ASD may have advanced conversation skills, while others may be nonverbal. The abilities of individuals with ASD can vary significantly, with some requiring extensive help in their daily lives, while others function with little to no support [5].

Children with ASD, like all children, have needs and rights to communicate these needs. It's essential to provide them with tools and strategies to effectively express their wants and needs. Behaviors of concern are often a communication of last resort due to a lack of alternative skills.

Importance of Early Intervention

Early intervention is crucial to help children with ASD develop essential social, communication, and behavioral skills. The sooner children receive the support they need, the higher their chances of developing these skills and leading fulfilling lives.

The interventions and supports are not limited to the child with ASD alone. It's equally important for caregivers to seek the necessary support, both practical and emotional, to cope with the challenges effectively. Raising a child with ASD can be physically and emotionally demanding, and caregivers must have access to resources that can help alleviate these pressures.

Addressing Comorbid Conditions

In addition to the primary symptoms associated with ASD, individuals with this condition may also have additional medical and mental health conditions that need to be managed alongside ASD. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are more prevalent in individuals with ASD compared to those without ASD [5].

It's essential to address these comorbidities to ensure comprehensive care for individuals with ASD.

While living with ASD presents its unique set of challenges, the importance of early intervention, comprehensive care, and support cannot be overstated. By addressing the challenges head-on and providing the necessary support, individuals with ASD can lead fulfilling lives.

Research and Future Perspectives

As we delve into the topic of mental health disorders in autism, it's essential to understand the ongoing research in this area, the advancements made in understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the importance of continued support for those living with autism.

CDC Studies on ASD

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is conducting significant research into ASD through the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED). The SEED project is investigating the risk factors and behaviors associated with ASD, providing valuable insights into the condition. There is also a follow-up study of older children who were initially enrolled in SEED, which aims to assess the health, functioning, and needs of individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities as they mature. This research underscores the ongoing efforts to understand ASD more comprehensively and develop effective strategies for support.

Advancements in Understanding ASD

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, and while mental illness can co-occur with Autism, Autism itself is not a mental health disorder. This understanding has evolved over time and is now reflected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) [6].

The way people with Autism express emotions can vary, and research confirms that individuals with Autism experience a full spectrum of emotions. It's essential to support them in expressing their emotions effectively. Similarly, every individual with Autism is unique in their communication style, and supporting their communication needs, even through Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) strategies, is crucial.

Importance of Ongoing Support

The need for ongoing support is vital for individuals with Autism. As they continue to learn and adapt throughout their lives, planning for their future, including employment, college, independent living, and necessary support services, is vital for a smoother transition into adulthood [7].

Moreover, it's important to address any additional medical and mental health conditions that co-occur with autism to ensure comprehensive care. Such an approach ensures that the individual's overall well-being is prioritized, and not just the primary condition.

Lastly, the role of caregivers is paramount in providing support to individuals with Autism. Raising a child with autism spectrum disorder can be physically and emotionally demanding. Therefore, it's crucial for caregivers to seek necessary support, both practical and emotional, to cope with the challenges effectively [7].

In sum, tackling mental health disorders in autism requires a comprehensive and empathetic approach, backed by rigorous research and a strong support system. As our understanding of ASD continues to grow, so too will our strategies for providing the best possible support to those living with this condition.









steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

Table of Contents