College depression is a common problem in young people with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). Moms and dads need to understand why the transition to college makes their “special needs” son or daughter vulnerable to depression — and what they can do about it – BEFORE the young adult attempts, and then fails, his or her first semester of college.
“College depression” isn't a clinical diagnosis. Rather, it’s a form of an adjustment disorder (i.e., a type of stress-related mental illness or depression). Typically, signs and symptoms of an adjustment disorder begin within three months of a stressful life event (in this case, going away to school). Depression, however, may occur at any time.
College students with Aspergers and HFA face many challenges, pressures and anxieties that their “typical” peers do not. Many factors can cause these young people to feel overwhelmed, for example:
- adapting to a new schedule
- adapting to a new workload
- adjusting to life with roommates
- feeling homesick
- figuring out how to “fit in”
- juggling school and employment
- living on their own for the first time
- making the transition from adolescence to adulthood
Aspergers and HFA college students dealing with depression are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and perform poorly in school than are their “typical” peers. Difficulty concentrating may cause these young people to have trouble finishing schoolwork, skip classes, lose interest in extracurricular activities – and even drop out and move back home.
Signs and symptoms that an Aspergers or HFA student may be experiencing college depression include:
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in weight
- Decreased concentration
- Excessive sleeping
- Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Frequent phone calls to the mother or father in which the student declares that he or she wants to drop out and return home
- Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
- Loss of energy
- Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
- Trouble making decisions and remembering things
- Trouble with thinking or concentrating
Aspergers and HFA college students may have difficulty seeking help for depression out of embarrassment or fear of not “fitting in.” Signs and symptoms also may be more difficult to notice from afar. If moms and dads suspect that their young adult is dealing with college depression, they should talk to him or her about what's going on. Then they should ask him or her to make an appointment with a school counselor or therapist as soon as possible. Many colleges offer counseling services that are extremely helpful in these cases.
Parents need to understand that depressive symptoms may not get better on their own — in fact, they may get worse if not treated. Untreated depression can lead to other mental and physical health issues or problems in other areas of life. Feelings of depression can also increase the likelihood of substance abuse and the risk of suicide.
In addition to seeking treatment, parents should encourage their adult child to take other steps to cope with college depression. For example:
1. Playing a sport or joining a club can help the young person meet people with similar interests, as well as provide a change of pace from schoolwork.
2. Encourage your son or daughter to take time each day to set priorities and goals. This will help him or her develop a sense of control and confidence. It will also help him or her avoid putting off important class work until late at night, which can lead to fatigue.
3. Encourage your son or daughter to get to know people in his or her dorm and classes. Friends can help your “special needs” adult child to feel more comfortable in a new environment.
4. Spending time alone can help your son or daughter re-energize and feel a sense of control over his or her life.
5. Your adult child may be able to reduce his or her stress level through physical activity, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, long walks or other calming activities.
There's no sure way to prevent college depression in young people with Aspergers and HFA. However, helping these individuals become accustomed to their college campus before the start of the school year can prevent them from feeling overwhelmed by the transition. Encourage your young adult to visit the campus and talk to other students, peer counselors or faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support.
If your college-bound son or daughter has a history of depression, talk to his or her doctor about what kind of counseling options might best help with the transition to college. In addition, help your young person become familiar with campus counseling resources. Remember, getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can help prevent college depression from worsening.
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