By We Level Up FL Treatment Center | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: April 13, 2023
Is autism a mental health diagnosis?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is indeed categorized as a mental disorder—also called a mental illness—in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) . The DSM-5 also classifies autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder (a subcategory of mental disorders). In other words, although autism is classified as a general mental disorder, it may be better conceptualized by its subcategory: a developmental disorder.
Many characteristics of autism overlap with other mental illnesses, so autism is often misdiagnosed as another mental illness. While there can be (and often are) people with more than one type of mental illness—including developmental disorders—the two may be defined, treated, and managed very differently.
Diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be difficult because there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the condition. Instead, doctors look at the person’s developmental history and behavior to diagnose.
ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months or younger. By age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered very reliable . However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until they are much older. Some people are not diagnosed until they are adolescents or adults. This delay means that children with ASD might not get the early help they need.
Early signs of ASD can include, but are not limited to:
- Avoiding eye contact.
- Having little interest in other children or caretakers.
- Limited display of language (for example, having fewer words than peers or difficulty with the use of words for communication).
- Getting upset by minor changes in routine.
ASD is a neuro-developmental disability, and it’s generally accepted that the likely causes are either genetic, neurological, or both. But because there’s no consensus or proof on the causes, there’s also no cure for ASD.
ASD is also far more common than people think. One in 100 people of school age would be diagnosed with ASD, and boys are far more likely to be affected than girls. Often, however, less extreme examples of ASD will go undiagnosed because while a person with ASD might experience some difficulties in some areas of development, other skills will develop typically, if not well beyond the typical, and so the ASD inhibitions are chalked up as part of the normal curve of children naturally being better at some things. In many cases, a diagnosis of ASD only occurs when the individual is well into adulthood, even though it is something they would have lived through from childhood.
Autism Mental Health
Autism is a mental health condition, and doctors can diagnose it through its symptoms, but there is no understanding of what exactly causes it, and there’s no cure. It is, however, possible to get help for someone diagnosed with ASD to enjoy their life’s full potential comfortably and safely. Furthermore, the rest of the family must have the proper support and environment, including parents and siblings. Having a family member with ASD can become a stressful experience for the whole family.
According to the NIMH, any mental health condition is “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. A mental illness can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.”
People with severe mental health conditions:
- May start having symptoms at any time in life.
- May have hallucinations and delusions.
- Experience disturbances in thinking and perception.
- May be effectively treated with medication.
- May have temporary or cyclical symptoms.
- Are diagnosed by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional.
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Autism and Depression Statistics
Individuals with autism are four times as likely to experience depression. Rates of depression increase with intelligence and with age. This results in over 70% of adults with autism having mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Sadly, these conditions often persist or worsen into adulthood.
Rates of major depressive disorder have been reported as
high as 37% in young adults with autism.
1 in 5 Americans
1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
1 in 68
CDC estimates that 1 in 68 developing young population has autism spectrum disorder.
Autism Facts Sheet
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Some people with ASD have a known difference, such as a genetic condition. Other causes are not yet known.
The following may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder. If your child exhibits any of the following, ask your pediatrician or family doctor for an evaluation right away:
By 6 months
- Few or no big smiles or other warm, joyful, and engaging expressions
- Limited or no eye contact
By 9 months
- Little or no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions
By 12 months
- Little or no babbling
- Little or no back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving
- Little or no response to their name
By 16 months
- Very few or no words
By 24 months
- Very few or no meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating)
At any age
- Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling, or social skills
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Persistent preference for solitude
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
- Delayed language development
- Persistent repetition of words or phrases (echolalia)
- Resistance to minor changes in routine or surroundings
- Restricted interests
- Repetitive behaviors (flapping, rocking, spinning, etc.)
- Unusual and intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights, and colors
What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comorbidity?
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) , Comorbidity is much more common in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than in the general population. For example, patients with autism are 1.6 times more likely to have eczema or skin allergies, 1.8 times more likely to have asthma and food allergies, and 2.1 times more likely to have frequent ear infections. 2.2 times more likely to have severe headaches, 3.5 times more likely to have diarrhea or colitis, and seven times more likely to report gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
ASD has several co-occurring physical and mental health conditions that are crucial for family members of the person with ASD and medical specialists.
- Sleep disorders/insomnia.
- Gastrointestinal disorders.
- Feeding/eating challenges.
- Bipolar disorder.
These issues can last throughout life but may also appear or diminish at different developmental stages. Alarmingly, multiple studies show that people with ASD have significantly shorter lifespans not due to autism itself but to accompanying mental and physical health conditions.
Diagnosis of comorbidities can be challenging because many people with ASD have difficulty recognizing and communicating their symptoms. Physical discomfort might prompt spikes in self-soothing repetitive behaviors, irritability, aggression, self-injury, and other challenging behavioral issues. That makes it difficult to tease whether these behaviors are related to ASD or physical discomfort caused by a co-occurring condition.
Dual Diagnosis – Addiction and Autism
Substance abuse problems were more prevalent among those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than among sex- and age-matched controls. In addition, those with ASD and co-morbid substance use disorder had a more than three-fold higher risk of death.
Substance use disorder treatment can be challenging, especially for individuals with disabilities or special needs. For example, for people on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome, the ability to access treatment that is suited to their needs can present a barrier to treatment that is already a challenge to get.
Because substance use, in general, is less common in this population, treatment needs tend to be overlooked. However, people with autism or Asperger’s still experience substance abuse and addiction. For this reason, organizations are beginning to improve treatment offerings for these underserved individuals.
Understanding the specific needs of people who have autistic tendencies and how they experience substance abuse can help develop programs and treatment options that are more likely to result in positive outcomes for this sensitive segment of the population.
Treatment options for those struggling with co-occurring autism or Asperger’s are similar to those available for the general public. In particular, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a centerpiece of addiction treatment – has shown benefits for those on the autism spectrum as well.
A study from Behavior Therapy showed that 79 percent of people with autism who were given CBT showed clinical improvement in their symptoms, compared with less than 29 percent in a control group. This seems to be connected with an improved ability to manage anxiety, a sign that strongly influences those with autism and those with substance use disorders.
Autism Anxiety Symptoms
Anxiety is a mental health problem common in autistic adults and children. Anxiety can significantly impact daily life, for example, coping at school or work. Each person’s anxiety has different triggers, and everyone has a different approach to managing symptoms.
Common types of anxiety in autism include:
Common symptoms of anxiety in autism
Anxiety is a problem when feelings of worry and panic become persistent, overwhelming, and beyond a person’s control.
Symptoms of anxiety include
- A racing heart rate.
- Feeling short of breath.
- Feeling agitated and distressed.
- Feeling shaky.
- Sweating and feeling sick.
When a person feels anxious, they may react in the following ways to help themselves feel more in control
- Seeking lots of reassurance.
- Avoiding situations and objects – like refusing to go to school.
- Meltdowns, outbursts, and tantrums.
- Overthinking things and ‘getting stuck’.
- A strong preference for routine and sameness.
- Repetitive behavior like rocking, stemming, or flapping.
- Obsessive routines or play.
- Running away.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but there are some common triggers for autistic people
- Uncertainty and change.
- Sensory stimuli, for example, noise or smell.
- Social situations.
- Expectations, pressures, and demands.
- Anticipating specific situations (like school or work).
- Specific fears like crowds, dogs, or needles.
Autism and OCD
Many behaviors associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), such as anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and social problems, are typical of ASD. However, while the appearance of ASD and OCD may be similar, the processes that drive these behaviors are quite different, and each requires a different kind of treatment.
Typical OCD treatment interventions with individuals with OCD co-morbid with ASD will not be effective, and vice versa. It is essential to determine which behaviors arise from a patient’s OCD and which arise from ASD.
Treating patients who have OCD comorbid with ASD is difficult but not impossible. OCD treatment should begin only after proper diagnosis and careful assessment of the patient’s condition. Then, therapy should start with anger management and basic social skills training. The therapist must overcome obstacles in these two areas before successful OCD treatment can happen.
Autism and Depression
Autistic people are four times as likely to experience depression throughout their lives as their neurotypical peers. Depression in ASD is shown to impact the quality of life significantly. This dual diagnosis is linked to an increased need for medication and caregivers with an increased risk for self-harm and suicide.
Diagnosing depression in ASD is often extremely difficult due to shared symptoms between both disorders and because there are currently no psychometric instruments that can effectively detect depression in ASD.
Before developing treatment plans for depression in ASD, clinicians must understand the unique challenges associated with diagnosing depression in this population, along with common risk factors and special diagnostic considerations.
Bipolar disorder and Autism
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder once known as “manic depression.” Persons with bipolar disorder alternate between a frenzied state known as mania and episodes of depression. While some individuals experience only manic episodes, many affected individuals rapidly alternate between these two states and experience great irritability.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder in someone with autism are likely to look different than they would in others. They commonly include “pressured speech” (rapid, loud, and virtually nonstop talking), constant pacing, an abrupt decrease in sleep, and increased impulsivity leading to aggression.
Some autistic people use self-harm to cope with or express overwhelming emotional distress. Sometimes when people self-harm, they feel that they intend to die on some level. More than half of people who die by suicide have a history of self-harm. But the intention is often to punish themselves, express their distress, or relieve unbearable tension. Sometimes it’s a mixture of all three.
Being autistic may mean you struggle to communicate with and understand others. This can include making sense of your feelings, communicating and interacting, and socializing with others. These challenges can mean you are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, which may make you more vulnerable to self-harm.
Autism and Schizophrenia
Emerging study results suggest that there are both clinical and biological links between autism and schizophrenia. Autism and schizophrenia share a long and tangled history. Comparing the social features of the two conditions could lead to better treatments and a deeper understanding of each.
Autism and schizophrenia share a long and tangled history. Comparing the social features of the two conditions could lead to better treatments and a deeper understanding of each. Though ASD and SZ are now distinct disorders—today’s ASD remains a childhood-onset disorder, whereas frank SZ predominantly emerges during young adulthood—the two disorders still share common genetic risk factors and symptom presentations.
Autism as a Secondary Diagnosis
Several conditions tend to overlap with autism. While some of these include classic medical conditions, like sleep disorders or epilepsy, some convergence with mental health conditions may cause you to seek treatment for a teen with autism. Autism and mental health are often linked because the condition results in difficulty with social interactions, schoolwork, and anxiety over societal expectations. So while we don’t treat autism as a primary diagnosis, we can help a high-functioning individual with autism who also struggles with various mental health conditions.
Treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders among individuals with ASD
Autism isn’t a disease; it does not get worse with time as some illnesses do. There is neither a physical nor ethical reason to do anything about it. Only when the symptoms affect your quality of life—your health, job, relationships, and so on—that autism treatment for adults may be a good option.
Autism treatment for adults program is not meant to “cure” your autism. Instead, it’s intended to give you a framework to better understand your strengths and challenges.
Treatment for ASD and co-occurring mental health disorders should begin as soon as possible after diagnosis. Early autism treatment for adults is vital as proper care can reduce individuals’ difficulties while helping them learn new skills and maximize their strengths.
The wide range of issues facing people with ASD means there is no single best treatment for ASD. Working closely with a doctor or health care professional is integral to finding the right treatment program.
Now that we answered the question is autism a mental health diagnosis? It is time to take the next best step. Reach out today if you or your loved one has ASD or think you have an undiagnosed ASD; you will need professional help. Inpatient autism treatment for adults can become necessary. To learn more, contact us today at the We Level Up FL Treatment Facility; we provide the utmost care with doctors and medical staff available 24/7 for life-changing and lasting recovery. We can help provide an enhanced opportunity to return to a fulfilling and productive life.
How to Improve Mental Health? 8 Steps & Tips for Maintaining Your Mental Wellbeing Video
8 Steps for Mental Wellbeing & How To Improve Mental Health In The Workplace
- Staying Positive
- Practicing Gratitude
- Taking Care of Your Physical Health
- Connecting With Others
- Developing a Sense of Meaning and Purpose in Life
- Developing Coping Skills
- Relaxation Techniques