In addition to the traditional symptoms of autism, psychiatric conditions commonly co-occur in autistic people. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, sleep-wake disorders, depressive disorders, and a variety of other disorders are all frequently seen alongside autism.
What Is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability. It is pervasive, meaning it impacts every aspect of a person’s experiences and functioning. The main areas that autism impacts are sensory and information processing, socializing and communication, and movement. Symptoms of autism first appear in early childhood. While some individuals may learn skills that mask symptoms or make them less visible, the condition never goes away.
Sensory and Information Processing in Autism
Autistic people process information differently, especially sensory information. These differences are often categorized into two main types: sensory under-sensitivity and sensory over-sensitivity. These over- or under-sensitivities may vary based on the sense involved or other factors such as mood or energy levels.
When an autistic individual is overwhelmed by sensory information to a great degree, it is referred to as sensory overload. Sensory overload often heightens emotions, especially anxiety, irritability, or panic. As such, sensory overload can combine with other mental health conditions and worsen symptoms.
Information processing may also be affected by autism. Autistic people may process information more slowly or in different ways, typically favoring detail-oriented processing over big-picture processing. These differences in information processing mean that autistic people may benefit from specific mental health treatment programs that can address this style of thinking.
Socializing and Communication in Autism
Autism can affect socializing and communication skills. Autistic people often socialize in unique ways. For example, many autistic people may find eye contact during conversation overstimulating or distracting. Like non-autistic people, autistic people’s communication preferences vary, but many autistic people prefer more direct conversation. Often autistic people struggle to understand typical metaphors, idioms, or couched speech. In some cases, autistic people can be solely nonverbal or partially nonverbal, meaning spoken communication may sometimes be difficult or impossible.
As such, autistic people can struggle with self-confidence or social connection. Additionally, some autistic people may face barriers to accessing mental healthcare or feeling comfortable in these environments. It is vital for mental health services to properly account for autistic clients and their needs.
Movement in Autism
Although less common and often less noticeable, autism can cause differences in movement. Autistic people can struggle with fine or gross motor skills, including tasks like tying shoes or keeping one’s balance. While these difficulties are rarely severe enough to warrant additional treatment, it is still important for mental health professionals to be aware of these symptoms and for spaces to be accessible.
Autism and Mental Health
It is well known that autism is frequently associated with a variety of additional mental health concerns such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression. Mental health conditions in autism can arise for several reasons that are not entirely understood. Experts believe, however, that both genetics and environment play a role. Mental health difficulties in autistic people can be exacerbated by both stigma and a lack of awareness, resulting in many autistic people being hesitant to receive mental health services.
The Effects of Masking
One core mental health difficulty that many autistic people face is masking. Masking is the act of hiding one’s autistic traits, either intentionally or unintentionally. Autistic people may mask autistic traits for a variety of reasons, but masking is especially common for avoiding hostility, maintaining relationships, and finding acceptance in work, school, or life. However, masking can be harmful to mental health, including contributing to suicidal ideation.
While masking has yet to be completely understood, current knowledge suggests that treatment specifically addressing masking can be beneficial. In addition, creating safe environments that lessen or remove pressure for autistic individuals to mask can improve mental health.
Treating Mental Health in Autistic People
In response to mental health difficulties among autistic people, experts have studied a variety of treatment approaches to determine best practices. Currently, research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness therapies are often beneficial. Some data suggest that pharmacological treatments can offer relief for specific behaviors such as self-harm.
Appropriate treatment is vital. Professionals should be knowledgeable about autism, its symptoms, and the needs of autistic clients. Clinics need to be accessible and sensory-friendly. Like all clients, autistic individuals should be able to collaborate with health care providers to determine the most effective treatments and create a safe and comfortable environment.
Alter Wellness Care’s Autism Support
Alter Wellness Care, located in Laguna Beach, California, offers state-of-the-art treatment for autistic individuals with co-occurring mental health conditions. Our care programs include two intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) and one partial hospitalization program (PHP), each designed with the needs of all clients in mind. Each program is designed to provide options for time investment and length, creating openings for any needs.
Our Treatment Options
We believe everyone deserves access to health care that works for them. In addition to CBT, which has been shown to work well for autistic clients with mental health difficulties, we provide a wide variety of other treatment options that can benefit our autistic clients. These options include:
- Psycho-educational groups: Our clients learn about their mental health issues and related behaviors, which helps them to better understand themselves and others.
- Skills development groups: We work with our groups to discover which skills are most needed and teach lessons in those areas, ensuring everyone has a chance to grow.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is a form of CBT focused on emotional skills, which may be especially beneficial for autistic people with alexithymia.
- Support groups: Our collaborative groups are designed to help with problem-solving and community finding.
- Interpersonal process groups: Clients work with staff to identify and process traumas.
- Acceptance therapy: This method helps clients to identify what matters most to them and to create a plan to achieve it.
Autistic people may struggle to find appropriate mental health treatment that can address all of their needs. Call (866) 515-1580 to learn about Alter Wellness Care’s services.