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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) [1]. 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.

There are many characteristics of autism that overlap with other mental illnesses, so autism is often misdiagnosed as another mental illness. While there can be (and often are) people who have 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 [1]. However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until 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.

Is Autism a Mental Health Diagnosis
The most common co-occurring mental illnesses for people with autism include depression and anxiety.


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 [1]. However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until 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 use of words for communication)
  • Getting upset by minor changes in routine

ASD is is a neuro-developmental disability and it’s generally accepted that the likely causes are either genetic, or neurological, or both. But because there’s no consensus or proof on the causes, there’s also no cure for ASD at this point in time.

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 severe 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 on what exactly causes it, and there’s no cure. It is, however, possible to get help for someone diagnosed with ASD, so that they can enjoy the full potential of their life in a comfortable and safe manner. Furthermore, it’s important that the rest of the family – including parents and siblings – have the right support and environment, as having a family member with ASD can become a stressful experience for the whole family.

Any mental health condition, according to the NIMH, 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.”

Serious mental illness, according to the NIMH, is “defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

People with serious mental health condition:

  • May start having symptoms at any time of life
  • May have hallucinations and delusions
  • Experience disturbances in thinking and perception
  • May be effectively treated by medication
  • May have temporary or cyclical symptoms
  • Are diagnosed by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional

What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comorbidity?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) [2], 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 allergy, 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 diarrhoea or colitis, and 7 times more likely to report gastrointestinal (GI) problems. 

ASD has a number of co-occurring physical and mental health conditions that are crucial for family members of the person with ASD and medical specialists.

These include:

  • Epilepsy/seizures
  • Sleep disorders/insomnia
  • ADHD
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Feeding/eating challenges

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 as well as irritability, aggression, self-injury, and other challenging behavioral issues. That makes it difficult to tease out whether these behaviors are related to ASD or to 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.

Is Autism a Mental Health Diagnosis
When seeking a treatment center for a person with an autism spectrum disorder, it is important to discuss the individual’s needs with the intake specialist. Enrolling in a treatment program that does not have the tools to meet the individual’s needs may result in an unsuccessful outcome and a return to substance abuse.

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 available for those who are 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 benefit 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 symptom that strongly influences those with autism and those with substance use disorders.

Autism Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety is a mental health problem that is common in autistic adults and children. Anxiety can have a big impact on daily life, for example coping at school or at 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

Physical symptoms

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

Behavioral symptoms

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, stimming or flapping
  • Obsessive routines or play
  • Running away
  • Self-harm


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 also typical of ASD. However, while the appearance of ASD and OCD may be similar on the surface, the processes that drive these behaviors are quite different, and each requires a different kind of treatment.

Using typical OCD treatment interventions with individuals with OCD co-morbid with ASD will not be effective and vice versa. It is important 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 all of the patient’s conditions. Then, therapy should begin 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 over the course of their lives as their neurotypical peers. Depression in ASD is shown to greatly impact quality of life. 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 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 the 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.

Is Autism a Mental Health Diagnosis
While autism can come with challenges, some autistic people find there are positive things about their condition: for example, being more creative, determined, focused or accepting than other people.

Autism Self-harm

Some autistic people use self-harm as a way to cope with or express overwhelming emotional distress.  Sometimes when people self-harm, they feel on some level that they intend to die. More than half of people who die by suicide have a history of self-harm. But the intention is more often to punish themselves, express their distress, or relieve unbearable tension. Sometimes it’s a mixture of all three.

Being autistic may mean that you find it hard to communicate with and understand others. This can include things like making sense of your own feelings, communicating how you feel 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

There are a number of conditions that tend to overlap with autism. While some of these include classic medical conditions, like sleep disorders or epilepsy, there is some convergence with mental health conditions that 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, trouble with 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 a variety of mental health conditions.

Treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders among individuals with ASD

Autism isn’t a disease, and it does not get worse with time as some illnesses do. There is neither a physical nor ethical reason to do anything about it. It’s 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. Rather, it’s meant to give you a framework to better understand both your strengths and your challenges.

Treatment for ASD and co-occurring mental health disorders should begin as soon as possible after diagnosis. Early autism treatment for adults is important as proper care can reduce individuals’ difficulties while helping them learn new skills and make the most of their strengths.

The wide range of issues facing people with ASD means that there is no single best treatment for ASD. Working closely with a doctor or health care professional is an important part of finding the right treatment program.

Now that we answered the question, is autism a mental health diagnosis?, it is time to do the next best step. Reach out today if you or your loved one has ASD or think that 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 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.

 is autism a mental health diagnosis
We Level Up Fl can help you better understand the answer to the question: Is autism a mental health diagnosis?

[1] NIMH –

[2] NCBI –,to%20have%20frequent%20ear%20infections.

[3] NCBI –