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Autism and mental health

Autism is not a mental health problem. 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 health problem. 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 seven out of ten 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 their 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. 

With the right support, autistic people can recover from mental health problems, but it’s vital that there are specialist services in place to support us.
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Supporting a friend

If you are worried about an autistic friend’s mental wellbeing, it is important to talk to them, and encourage them to 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 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 time 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.

YoungMinds Crisis Messenger

Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.

All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.

Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.

Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.

Text: YM to 85258

Opening times: 24/7

National Autistic Society

Offers support to autistic people and their families.

If you don't want to call their helpline, you can complete an online enquiry form and someone will get back to you.

Phone: 0808 800 4104

Opening times: 10am - 12pm & 1pm - 3pm, Monday - Friday

Childline

If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

Phone: 0800 1111

Opening times: 9am - midnight, 365 days a year

The Mix

Offers support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them.

Email support available via their online contact form.

Free 1-2-1 webchat service available.

Free short-term counselling service available.

Phone: 0808 808 4994

Opening times: 4pm - 11pm, seven days a week

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