It’s estimated that somewhere around 20% of the US population will experience some form of depression in their lives. Though this concerning statistic jumps up to 60% for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, where mood disorders such as depression tend to be more common. Especially in individuals with developmental disabilities.

At the same time, a lot of children with ASD have communication deficiencies which can make it hard for them to fully express their emotions. This can make it hard for parents, and other caregivers to truly understand if their child with ASD is experiencing depression or other serious mood disorders.

The Challenges of Diagnosing Depression

Depression can be challenging to diagnose in any child. However, it’s even more challenging to recognize it in children with autism who don’t always display a lot of emotion on their faces, or express their motions in the same nonverbal ways that children without autism tend to do.

Fortunately, psychiatrists and researchers specializing in childhood autism, have been hard at work on the subject. A growing body of research into communication and mood disorders in children with ASD seems to suggest that there is a disturbance in the “Affective Contact” in children with autism spectrum disorder.

This essentially means that the affect, or facial expression and body language doesn’t always entirely match the child’s mood or current emotional state. Though this decreased affective contact or lack of expression isn’t a sign indicating the child is or isn’t depressed. It simply means that their nonverbal expression might not always match their emotions, which means it can’t be used as a reliable indicator.

Of course, this can make it very difficult to even suspect the child is depressed. Especially if the child with ASD has limited or virtually no speech capability to be able to verbally express their emotional state.

Understanding the Link Between Autism & Depression

Parents and caregivers who interact with a child daily are often the most aware of changes in the child’s mood or behavior. This often starts out with the child not acting like their usual self. Though many of the primary features of ASD can easily be confused with other symptoms of depression. This means these noticeable changes shouldn’t be the only evidence indicating something is happening with the child’s emotional state.

Yet if you suspect something is affecting your child or altering their mood for a prolonged period of time, it can still be very hard to pinpoint the underlying cause. Instead, it helps to look for clusters of symptoms and mood changes.

Common Symptoms of Depression in a Child with ASD

The following are some of the more common symptoms you might see displayed or expressed by a child with ASD who is experiencing a short or long-term state of depression.

  • No enjoying usually the usual things
  • Sad or downcast facial expressions
  • Signs of low self-esteem
  • Expressing feelings of guilt
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness
  • Self-harm
  • Inactivity with no overt medical cause
  • Withdrawing from well-established social connections
  • Expressing suicidal thoughts
  • Severe or frequent repetitive
  • Increases in compulsive behavior
  • Having more tantrums
  • Displaying aggressive behavior
  • Showing signs of intense frustration
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there does seem to be a link between ASD and other mood disorders. Depression is technically classified as a type of mood disorder. Though researchers have yet to identify a specific link. However, new research seems to suggest that genetics might play a role.

There are also possible depression triggers when the child realizes they are different than their friends and family members. This also ties in with the frustrations many children with ASD experience as they go through their school-age years.

A child with ASD might also find it more difficult to cope with social pressures and peer interaction in their early elementary school years. Many struggle to make strong, healthy friendships, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. This can further increase the risk of environmental factors triggering a bout of depression.

How to Help an Autistic Child with Depression Symptoms?

There are several different ways to help a child who is displaying symptoms of depression. This starts with simple things that anyone with depression might find helpful. Routine exercise and eating nutritious foods help promote healthy brain chemistry. Making sure they get good quality sleep is always important.

If their depression is linked to, or made worse by external factors, such as social interactions and peer pressure, you might be able to intervene in a way that helps them develop more effective coping strategies. If their depression is linked to their educational challenges, their teacher or special educators might be able to modify the curriculum in a way that helps them achieve academic goals that boost their sense of self-esteem.

How to Treat Depression in a Child with ASD

The most effective depression treatment plan for a child with ASD will need to be based on their age, current skills, communication capabilities, and the external factors contributing to the child’s depression.

Talk Therapy for Autistic Children with Depression

This might start with psychological “Talk Therapy” for a child with ASD who has functional verbal communication skills. Even if significant progress isn’t made in treating the child’s depression symptoms through talk therapy it can still be an effective tool for helping to diagnose or confirm depression. It can also be used to help identify other mood disorder conditions that might be afoot.

It’s important to note that talk therapy isn’t always an effective treatment option for children with ASD. Especially if they experience increased stress when sharing feelings. However, talk therapy can be a key tool for assessing if another treatment is more suitable for them such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Medications to Help an Autistic Child with Depression

Several medications might be able to help an autistic child with depression. Though you should note that medication typically isn’t recommended for depressed children on the autism spectrum unless it is given under the close supervision of a specialist. Your child’s ABA therapist can help you understand if medications can help your child and which ones might best suit their current symptoms.