Common Mental Health Comorbidities That Autistic Adults Have: Why Therapy Is Important

Apr 22, 2022 | Autism, Mental Health

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What are Mental Health Comorbidities?

Comorbidity is a medical term that you may have heard your physician use. It is defined as the existence of more than one disease or condition co-occurring with a primary condition

Autistic individuals have an increased risk of developing mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression – which are considered comorbidities of autism. 

Symptoms of mental health conditions often go untreated in adult autistics, as they are unrecognized as separate conditions and are falsely attributed to what autism “looks like.” Some professionals refuse to counsel autistic adults with mental health conditions due to their lack of training and experience with autism. Despite the prevalence of mental health conditions, it can be difficult for an autistic adult to find affordable and quality mental health care.

When mental health comorbidities go untreated, they can greatly affect an individual’s quality of life and present negative outcomes, such as difficulties with employment and relationships, as well as obstacles in communication, poor overall health, addictions, eating disorders, and especially associated with anxiety and depression – self-harming thoughts and suicidal ideation.

Mental Health Comorbidities Common to Autistic Adults

The three most common mental health comorbidities and symptoms that autistic adults struggle with are:

Anxiety

  • Feeling restless, nervous, or tense
  • Feelings of danger, panic, or doom
  • Sleep difficulties 
  • Inability to remain calm or still 
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking beyond the present worry
  • Frequent headaches
  • Frequent physical symptoms may include sweating, trembling, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, or shortness of breath

Depression

  • Feeling “down” or in a low mood persistently
  • Lost of interest in things once loved
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability
  • Change in appetite (over or undereating)
  • Body aches and headaches
  • Digestive problems 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

  • Continuous thoughts, images, or ideas (that will not go away, are unwanted, or cause distress)
  • Fear of contamination or dirt
  • Needing things to be in order or symmetrical (extreme attention to detail)
  • Persistent intense thoughts about losing control and harming yourself (or others)
  • Excessive devotion to work 
  • Stiff, formal, or rigid mannerisms
  • Perfectionism to the point that it impedes the ability to finish projects

Know that this is a limited list of mental health conditions that any adult can struggle with. 

Comorbidities to autism may also include fatigue syndrome or burnout (with physical causes ruled out), bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (and more). 

Related: Alcohol Use in Autistic People and People With ID/DD

WTCSB – Therapy for Autistic Individuals

It is important to remember that even though an autistic adult may or may not experience mental health struggles, the why behind having these comorbidities are complex (can be caused by the severity of the individual’s autism, genetics, brain chemistry, etc.). It is a myth that mental health comorbidities, such as anxiety and depression, are the same as autism. 

Mental health comorbidities are separate conditions and treating them with counseling and therapy can improve an individual’s quality of life. These conditions are very difficult to tackle by oneself without help, and the effects can dangerously accumulate throughout a lifetime.

At WTCSB, we have a group of clinicians with extensive experience in helping autistic adults and teens, and those with intellectual disabilities with mental health issues.

Therapy is more than important, and this means that an adult should never be turned away from treatment for a condition, such as anxiety, simply because they are autistic – and treatment must follow the same principles as it would be for any other client.

If you are in the Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight, or Southampton County, VA area and are in need of mental health support, by clinicians who understand the neurodiverse brain, contact us today at (757) 758-5106, or reach out to us online

WTCSB Services

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Western Tidewater CSB is the leading authority in mental health and developmental services in Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight County, and Southampton County. Learn more about what truly sets us apart.