By Dr Michelle Garnett & Prof Tony Attwood
Autistic adults appear especially vulnerable to feeling depressed, with about one in three adolescents and two out of three autistic adults having experienced at least one episode of severe depression in their life. More adults than adolescents may experience clinical depression because the reasons for depression in autistic adults may intensify during the adult years. The following descriptions about why autistic adults can become depressed are also relevant for adolescents. This is the first in a two-part series on why autistic adolescents and adults become depressed.
The reasons autistic adults become depressed
Feelings of social isolation and loneliness
Autistic adults have the desire for friendship, connection, and social approval, but often struggle to easily achieve these outcomes. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, autistic people are not easily read or understood by neurotypicals (nonautistic people) which can cause a sense of disconnection and wish to avoid interaction for both parties. Secondly, because the neurology of an autistic person is not wired innately to assist them to easily understand people and how to navigate social interactions. This double bind has been called the “double-empathy problem” of autism (c.f. Mitchell, Sheppard & Cassidy, 2021). The result can be extreme feelings of social isolation and loneliness: as described by Debbie, an autistic woman, ‘the heartache of having unmet needs.’ The compensatory strategy of analysing social situations and social performance can be exhausting and significantly contribute to feeling depressed.
The long-term consequences on self-esteem of feeling rejected and not respected or valued by peers
Autistic adults may see other people as being ‘toxic’ to his or her mental health because of past experiences of bullying and rejection. These experiences have been described as giving intense physical and emotional pain. It is little wonder that many autistic adults choose solitude rather than company. However, as one of our clients with autism said, ‘I would rather be alone, but I cannot stand the loneliness.’ Most autistic adults have experienced bullying, rejection and humiliation, and without a well-defined and robust self-identity, cannot mentally counter what the bully says or cope with the social rejection and humiliation.
Many typical teenagers value specific qualities in their peers, such as the ability to make people laugh through quick wit, risk taking, being socially skilled, sporting ability and being perceived as ‘cool’. Being popular is equated to self-worth. The qualities that an autistic adult bring to a friendship usually include loyalty, compassion, knowledge and open-mindedness, which may not be valued by typical teenagers. It is easy for the autistic adult to believe that their friendship qualities are inferior to their peers, and that perhaps, therefore, they are not as valuable as other people. This may result in feelings of low self-esteem which contributes to feeling depressed.
The mental exhaustion from trying to succeed socially
Despite the lack of the innate hardwiring for easily socializing, many autistic adults utilize their intellect to achieve social inclusion. Unfortunately, the psychological cost is high. The mental effort of intellectually analyzing every interaction to know what to do and say is exhausting. As a Buddhist monk with Autistic adults said, ‘For every hour I spend socializing, I need an hour of solitude to recharge my energy levels.’ Energy depletion is a major cause of depression.
Internalising and believing the peer criticisms and torments
Frequent bullying and humiliation by peers can lead an autistic adult to believe that they really are defective in the ways described by the predators of the school and workplace. As Faye, an autistic woman and public speaker said, ‘If you are told each and every day by your peers, your teachers and your family that you are stupid, you learn pretty quickly that you are stupid.’ This can lead to beliefs about the self that are judgmental and critical, such as ‘I must be stupid,’ ‘I am defective,’ ‘There is something undeniably wrong with me,’ which can both make the person depressed, and keep them depressed. In contrast, typical adolescents, when criticized by peers, will have several close friends who can quickly and easily repair their emotions and provide reassurance and evidence that the negative suggestions are not true.
A thinking style that focuses on errors and what could go wrong
Autistic adults are very good at recognizing patterns and spotting errors, which is ideal when designing a bridge or analysing an MRI scan but not so great when thinking about oneself or the future. Being able to focus on errors or anomalies is a very important employment skill; however, when the person always uses this style of thinking when contemplating themselves or their future, depression may be the outcome. An example of this style of thinking is: ‘I never get things right, I am hopeless, and I always will be.’ There can be a relative lack of optimism; as the autistic adult achieves greater intellectual maturity, there may be increased insight into being different, with the resulting self-perception of being irreparably defective and socially stupid.
There can also be high expectations of social competence and an aversion for social errors and self-criticism. As Caroline stated, ‘The worst thing about disappointing yourself is that you never forgive yourself fully,’ or Ruth’s comment that, ‘When something happens, such as not having your homework done, your inner voice blames and shames you for failing.’
Belief that change is aversive and unattainable
Autistic adults often have great difficulty adjusting to change or the unanticipated, and usually actively seek and enjoy and feel relaxed when there is consistency and predictability in their daily lives. This can lead to a mindset that change is unpleasant and to be avoided. Another characteristic of autistic adults is cognitive inflexibility, which is not being able to conceptualize an alternative: in other words, a ‘one track mind’. Thus, as described by Joshua, ‘I may not want to change, know how to change, or believe that change is even possible.’ This can lead to the belief that feeling depressed will continue and be consistent throughout my life.
Not being able to cope with specific sensory experiences
An extremely difficult part of autism for many people can be the way they experience their sensory world, for example smells, sounds, textures and light intensity. Specific sensory experiences that are perceived by others as not particularly intense or aversive can be perceived by autistic adult as being unbearably intense and painful. If the person does not have coping or escape strategies for avoiding or tolerating these intense sensory experiences, he or she may begin to feel very hopeless and depressed about how they are ever going to cope with this aspect of their life. The anxiety they feel while both anticipating and being overwhelmed by aversive sensory experiences can be paralysing, and paradoxically, can increase their sensory sensitivity.
Being diagnosed with Autism
Autism has historically been perceived in our society as being a disability, which it can be, or a mental illness, which it is not. However, when we confirm the diagnosis of autism in our diagnostic clinic the most common reaction from an adult who has sought the diagnosis is tears of relief. Finally, there is an explanation for the differences that the person has been observing and analysing for a lifetime. Now the explanation can be that ‘My brain is wired differently’ instead of, ‘I have a defective personality,’
Unfortunately, for some adolescents and young adults there is a rejection of the diagnosis due to genuine concern as to how it might be interpreted by society and especially by peers. There is understandably a sensitivity to the potential for being labelled in a pejorative way, which could then be perceived as official confirmation of being defective. Adolescents can also be acutely aware that peer ignorance of the nature of autism may lead to subsequent rejection. The diagnosis and diagnostic label can become ammunition for verbal and physical abuse.
Family history of depression
We have known for some time that there is a higher-than-expected incidence of mood disorders, including depression, in the family members of an autistic person. Recent research has suggested that 44 per cent of mothers and 28 per cent of fathers of an autistic child have reported having had a clinically diagnosed depression. In more than 50 per cent of cases, the diagnosis occurred before the birth of the child. If a parent has episodic depression, then their son or daughter may have a higher genetic risk of experiencing depression themselves.
A ‘sixth sense’ emotional sensitivity
One of the diagnostic characteristics of autistic adults is a difficulty with nonverbal communication: that is, the ability to read facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. However, clinical experience and autobiographies describe a ‘sixth sense’ ability to perceive and absorb negative emotions in others; the person is over-sensitive to another person’s distress, despair, anxiety or anger, and this can occur without their actually seeing or hearing the other person. An example is a teenager in bed one morning, facing the bedroom wall with eyes closed. His mother tapped the door and silently walked into the room to open the curtains. He immediately said, “What’s wrong Mum?” which was an accurate appraisal of her emotional state of high anxiety, but without engaging conventional nonverbal cues to provide that information.
The following quotes describe the experience:
- There’s a kind of instant subconscious reaction to the emotional states of other people that I have understood better in myself over the years. If someone approaches me for a conversation and they are full of worry, fear or anger, I find myself suddenly in the same state of emotion.
- I am able to distinguish very subtle cues that others would not see, or it might be a feeling I pick up from them.
This sensitivity to ‘negative vibes’ can feel like being an emotional ‘sponge’. There is a difficulty creating a sense of detachment from the negative feelings of others which seem to be contageous. Another person’s feelings of sadness can become ‘infectious’ to the autistic person, who is not able to determine ownership of the original depressive thoughts. It is interesting that one of the reasons for self-imposed social isolation for an autistic adult can be to provide protection against negative feelings in others that are detrimental to one’s own mental health.
Where to find further information
We have written a self-help book for depressed autistic adolescents and adults with the intention of saving lives. The above information is taken directly from one of the book chapters. Subsequent chapters outline a 10-Step Programme for recovery from depression. The programme is best undertaken with a Mentor who could be a health professional such as a counsellor or clinical psychologist, or a parent, partner or family friend.
Exploring Depression, and Beating the Blues: A CBT Self-Help Guide to Understanding and Coping with Depression in Asperger’s Syndrome [ASD-Level 1] by Tony Attwood and Michelle Garnett, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Web: www.jkp.com
If you are an autistic adult or supporting an autistic adult, we can highly recommend our one-day course: Exploring Depression: Training in a CBT Programme for Depressed and Autistic Adults and Adolescents.
Mitchell, P., Sheppard, E. & Cassidy, S. (2021). Autism and the double-empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 39, 1-18. DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12350