Dual Diagnosis: People with Autism and Dealing with Mental Health Challenges



In the early years of the autism diagnosis, autism was thought by some to be a mental illness caused by poor parenting in the form of “refrigerator mothers” rather than a developmental disability caused by a difference in neurological type. Although this inaccurate idea about autism’s roots was disproven after much effort on the part of advocates, one of the results of the process to get rid of the “refrigerator mother” concept was a tendency on the part of many in the autism community to want to shy away from the world of mental health. Although it is true that autism is not a mental illness, Autistic people do experience co-occurring mental health conditions and ignoring them only diminishes the quality of life of Autistic adults and family members.

Common Co-Occurring Conditions

Autistic adults are more likely to experience any number of co-occurring mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and others. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common co-occurring conditions, and yet also two that are often more complex than other co-occurring diagnoses. Many autistic people experience anxiety and depression as responses to experiences going on in their lives – for example, anxiety over uncertainty brought about by difficulties in reading nonverbal cues or depression over trouble in employment or relationships. This is an important phenomena that people should seek support from. At the same time, it should be recognized as often a different kind of phenomena from having a co-occurring diagnosis of depression or an anxiety disorder, and may require different kinds of support.

Why Co-Occurring Conditions May Go Undetected

Many co-occurring mental health conditions may go undetected in Autistic adults and youth, for a number of reasons. First, there is a strange perception on the part of many people – including many professionals – that a person may only have a single disability and that any problems they possess should be attributed to their first diagnosis. In addition, many Autistic people have challenges with functional communication that may make it difficult to work with mental health professionals who are not willing to be accommodating. Finally, given the general lack of understanding of the autism spectrum on the part of many professionals and in the broader community, any challenges a person experiences may simply be characterized as autism-related, instead of thought being given to any other issues, such as a co-occurring mental health condition, that a person may be going through.

Useful Things to Consider When Seeking Support for Co-Occurring Conditions

When seeking support for a co-occurring mental health condition, it would be advisable for Autistic adults and youth to keep a few things in mind. First, it is important to find a professional who is willing to make accommodations at the request of their clients. Second, a common problem many adults on the spectrum experience is running into mental health professionals who see their role as “treating autism” instead of assisting a person with the co-occurring mental health challenges that are the cause of more significant problems in their life. It is valuable to look for a professional who accepts that their new client is Autistic and will remain so, and that they are looking for help on improving their quality of life as an Autistic person, not as someone trying to be normal. Finally, keep in mind that when seeking mental health supports, peer support options are an important and valid way of improving quality of life. Much of the best support systems in the mental health world come from people with similar functional challenges supporting each other. These types of supports are exceedingly valuable.


Recommend this content Dual Diagnosis: People with Autism and Dealing with Mental Health Challenges

Date posted: January 22, 2012. Content created by The Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Last updated: October 2, 2012.

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