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College Depression in Older Teens and Young Adults with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism

"The emotional transition to college has really been a challenge for our young adult child with HFA. He has struggled with depression even more than in the past during high school. He is having a lot of trouble dealing with this new stage of life — how you we help?!"

College depression is a common problem among older teens and young adults with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). In this post, we will look at why the transition to college makes these “special needs” individuals vulnerable to depression — and what moms and dads can do about it.

College depression isn't a clinical diagnosis, rather it is depression that begins during college. AS and HFA students face many challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. For example:
  • Due to their “quirky” or odd behavior, they may experience ostracism from the peer group, teasing, or bullying.
  • Money and intimate relationships may serve as major sources of stress.
  • They are adapting to a new schedule and workload.
  • They are adjusting to life with roommates.
  • They may be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick.
  • They are trying to figure out how to “fit-in.”

Dealing with these changes during the transition from the teenage years to adulthood can trigger depression during college in these individuals. College depression has been linked to:
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Risky behaviors related to drug and alcohol abuse
  • Smoking
  • Impaired academic performance
  • Preferring to isolate rather than socialize
  • Returning home after a failed attempt to adjust to college life

Many “typical” college students occasionally feel sad or anxious, but these emotions usually pass within a few days or weeks. However, with students on the autism spectrum, feelings of sadness or anxiety may persist and interfere with normal activities. This is often due to the fact that their emotional age is much younger than their chronological age. Thus, they are emotionally and socially unprepared to “mix” with peers who are developmentally advanced by comparison.

Signs that an AS or HFA student may be experiencing depression during college include:
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy
  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Fixation on past failures
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Indecisiveness
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Self-blame when things aren't going right
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Unexplained physical problems (e.g., back pain, headaches, stomachaches, etc.)

Symptoms of depression can be difficult to notice if your teenager is no longer living at home. Also, AS and HFA students may have difficulty seeking help for depression out of embarrassment or fear of not “fitting-in.”

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

What should parents do if they suspect that their older teen or young adult is experiencing college depression?

1. Helping your AS or HFA teenager become accustomed to the college campus before the start of the school year may prevent him from feeling overwhelmed later in the semester. Encourage him to visit the campus and talk to other classmates, peer counselors, and faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support.

2. Encourage your teenager to avoid making major decisions (e.g., changing majors, doing too many things at once, etc.). Instead, help her to break up large tasks into small ones.

3. Encourage your teenager to get to know people in her dorm and classes. Caring classmates can help her to feel more comfortable in a new environment.

4. If you suspect that your teenager is struggling with depression, talk to him about what's going on – and listen. Encourage him to talk about his feelings. Also, ask him to make an appointment with a therapist as soon as possible. Most colleges offer mental health services.

5. If your teenager has risk factors for - or a history of - depression, talk to her doctor about what kind of counseling options might best help her with the transition to college. Also, help her become familiar with campus counseling resources.

6. Remember, depression may not get better on its own. In fact, it often gets worse if it isn't treated. Feelings of depression can also increase the likelihood of substance abuse and the risk of suicide. So, parents must intervene! Untreated depression can lead to other mental and physical health issues in other areas of life.

7. Urge your teenager to get involved in activities that he enjoys, which can help to shift the focus away from his negative feelings. Physical activity can be particularly helpful as well.

Helping your AS or HFA teenager make the emotional transition to college can be a major undertaking. Know how to identify whether he or she is having trouble dealing with this new stage of life — and what you can do to help. Remember, getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can relieve symptoms, prevent depression from returning, and help “special needs” students succeed in college.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

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