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Autism and Mental Health

Autism is not a mental illness. It's a developmental condition that affects how you see the world and how you interact with other people.

What is autism?

Autism is not a mental illness. It's a developmental condition that affects how you see the world and how you interact with other people.

Just like anyone else, autistic people can have good mental health. However, people with autism do often experience mental health problems. A study found that 7 out of 10 people with autism also have a condition such as anxiety, depression, ADHD or OCD. 

You might have heard the phrase ‘on the autism spectrum’, or ‘autistic spectrum’. Autism is a spectrum condition, which means it affects people in very different ways. However, there are certain traits that most autistic people experience to some extent. These include:

  • Difficulty recognising or understanding other people's emotions and expressing your own
  • Being over or under-sensitive to things like loud noises and bright lights, and finding crowded noisy spaces challenging
  • Preferring familiar routines and finding unexpected changes to those routines challenging or distressing
  • Having intense and specific interests in things
  • Difficulties reading body language, understanding sarcasm and facial expressions

All of these traits can be experienced to lesser or greater degrees. Experiencing one or more of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean you are autistic. But if these kinds of things are consistently present and are impacting upon your life, you may consider talking to your GP to discuss how you can seek a formal diagnosis.

Looking after your mental health

If you are on the autistic spectrum, just the same as any young person, it is important to seek specialist help when you feel like you need it, but also to take good care of yourself. We recommend regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep and talking things through with people you know and trust.

You might find unexpected changes very stressful, so trying to keep daily routines as predictable as possible and this will help you to reduce anxiety. 

Supporting a friend

If you are worried about an autistic friend’s mental wellbeing, it is important to talk to them, and encourage them look after themselves and seek specialist help if needed. Autistic young people might find it harder to communicate how they feel, so here are some tips that can help you to have a positive conversation:

  • Try to talk in a quiet, calm environment. Background noise, fluorescent lighting – even the sound of you stirring your tea – can be really distracting and make a difficult conversation much harder.
  • Find out what kind of communication works for them. It can be helpful to ask your friend how how they prefer to communicate. Some people may prefer to text, or write something down, or to have time in advance to think about their answers. 
  • Ask closed, direct questions: Autistic people can find open questions such as ‘How was your day?’ much harder to answer than something more defined, like ‘Did anything happen today that upset you?’
  • Allow enough for them to answer: An autistic person may take some time to process your question and respond to it. When waiting for an answer it might feel tempting to ask the question again, or rephrase – silences can feel awkward! Instead, give your friend plenty of time to respond, and be OK with the silence.
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