Mental Health of Autistic Adults
Increasingly researchers are conducting studies looking at mental health among autistic people. Recent findings have suggested that autistic adults are more likely to experience several mental health conditions than non-autistic adults. Many autistic self-advocates are speaking up about their experiences and encouraging researchers to do more work in this field.
What do we know about mental health for autistic adults? There is evidence that autistic people are more likely than non-autistic people to experience conditions such as generalised anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder, and that these conditions are common across the lifespan (Lai et al., 2019; Uljarevic et al., 2019).
However, here’s where things become a little tricky. The tools clinicians use to diagnose mental health conditions are often tools that have been designed for use among non-autistic people. This can lead to challenges, as the tools are written for a non-autistic client, and it is possible that autistic individuals may experience symptoms differently or understand questions being asked in a different way. For example, symptoms that are associated with anxiety among non-autistic people, may be a sign that the autistic individual is experiencing sensory over-stimulation rather than an anxiety disorder. It is also possible that clinicians unfamiliar with autism may misinterpret symptoms of autism as features of another clinical condition. Conversely, clinicians may ignore or overlook co-occurring conditions, assuming it is part of autism, an issue known as diagnostic overshadowing.
These challenges have prompted researchers to suggest a) mental health evaluations for autistic adults, b) diagnostic tools designed to identify mental health conditions among autistic people, and c) therapies designed specifically for autistic people (Lai et al., 2019; Uljarevic et al., 2019).
By Dr Bec Flower and Dr Rachel Jellett, OTARC Postdoctoral Research Fellows