Why Teens on the Autism Spectrum Can Suffer from Depression

“I’m concerned that my son is depressed (17 y.o.). Is this something that happens along with high functioning autism? If so, why? How can I know for sure if he is really struggling with depression? He has made some off-handed comments about wanting to kill himself. How seriously do I need to be taking these comments?”

Depression seems to be common among teens and young adults with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS). Many of the same deficits that produce anxiety often unite to produce depression.

The relationship between serotonin functioning and depression has been explored in detail in this population. There is good evidence that serotonin functions may be impaired in kids and teens on the autism spectrum, which suggests that depression is a common comorbid condition.

In addition to impaired serotonin functioning, (a) deficits in social relationships and (b) poor coping-strategies that allow the teenager to compensate for disappointment and frustration may fuel a vulnerability to depression. (As a side note, there is some genetic evidence suggesting that depression and social-anxiety are more common among first-degree relatives of autistic kids, even when accounting for the subsequent effects of anxiety.)

Because some features of depression and autism spectrum disorders overlap, it is important to track that the changes in mood are a departure from baseline functioning. Therefore, the presence of social withdrawal in a teen with the disorder should not be considered a symptom of depression unless there is an acute decline from his or her baseline level of functioning.

Another important point is that the core symptoms of depression should arise together. Therefore, the simultaneous appearance of symptoms would point to depression (e.g., decreased energy, further withdrawal from interactions, irritability, loss of pleasure in activities, sadness, self-deprecating statements, sleep and appetite changes).

An additional point is that teens who display “affective” (i.e., relating to moods and feelings) and “vocal monotony” (i.e., a droning, unchanging tone) are at higher risk for having their remarks minimized by peers, which often gives the HFA or AS teen the impression that he “doesn’t matter” – which in turn can fuel depression.

Some teens on the autism spectrum can make suicidal statements in a manner that suggests an off-hand remark, without emotional impact. When comments are made this way, parents may underestimate them. The content of such comments may be more crucial than the emotional emphasis with which they are delivered. Thus, comments around “wanting to die” should be taken very seriously.

Medications that are useful for treatment of depression in kids and teens on the spectrum are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, although no medications have been shown to be particularly more beneficial for depressive symptoms in people with the disorder. Therefore, the decision as to which medications to use is determined by side-effect profiles, previous experience, and responses to these medications in other family members.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

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