AUTISM, TEENS & DEPRESSION
by Michael H. Goldman, LCSW
Many of us associate the Spring with coming out of the winter doldrums and fresh new beginnings. However, as our excitement and energy increase, we are mindful that this is not necessarily the case for everyone. Some people continue to struggle with their moods throughout the entire year. The timing of Autism Awareness Month draws attention to a group of people who are particularly susceptible to anxiety and depression. Individuals who are on the autism spectrum face many diverse challenges during their lifetime, including safety issues, economic problems, medical and mental health conditions.
A real struggle reported for adolescents on the autism spectrum is loneliness. It is reported that 7% of children and 20% of adolescents on the autism spectrum are diagnosed with depression, with rates increasing with age and intellectual abilities. Adolescents with higher functioning autism are more prone to being diagnosed with depression. This discrepancy is worth understanding to help improve loneliness amongst adolescents on the autism spectrum.
Autism as defined by the DSM-V is a spectrum disorder based on severity. It encompasses a wide range of challenges in the areas of social communications and social interactions and demonstrates restricted, repetitive patterns in behavior, interests and activities. According to the 2018 CDC report, 1 in 59 children will be born with an autism spectrum disorder and boys are 4x more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Autism is equally prevalent across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
During elementary school, friendships start forming and children play with neighbors and school friends at recess. Typically, elementary school children join organized sports and activities and join social groups. Caregivers help this process by arranging play dates and social connections to help support positive social growth. Caregivers, parents, teachers, schools and religious leaders attempt to teach our kids to be kind to others, share, show respect, include others and accept people for their differences.
Children on the autism spectrum attempt to engage in all the same activities as typical peers and during the early school grades they feel good about their social connections. However, as the grades move on, individuals on the spectrum participate in fewer social activities and experience rejection from peers. They find themselves in situations where, more often than not, they are alone. This has a negative impact on their self-esteem which suffers from the lack of social success and diminishing social acceptance. Negative self-talk is reinforced by social problems such as missing others’ jokes and sarcasm. They start to feel as though they stand out and often fall prey to teasing, bullying and exclusion. Negative self-perception and self-identity settle in for adolescents on the spectrum as they begin comparing themselves to their peers. “Why am I different, how come I don’t have friends?”
Low self-esteem and loneliness are two of the major contributing factors for depression among adolescents on the autism spectrum. Early intervention is key in helping to support positive emotional growth. Teaching individuals about their gifts and talents, celebrating differences, acting as a good role model, practicing positive affirmations, enrolling in extra-curricular activities with like-minded peers, can all contribute to offsetting negative social experiences.
Like most individuals, we all have a desire to feel powerful and have achievements in our lives. We all need the freedom to make choices for ourselves. We need to feel loved by others and a sense of belonging. These fundamental needs, if met, can help support positive self-growth and decrease depression rates amongst adolescents on the autism spectrum. This April, during Autism Awareness month, take the time to support individuals on the spectrum and help someone to feel important.