Autism Spectrum Australia

Mental health and wellbeing focus

Everyone wants to be happy, physically fit and healthy, and want that for their loved ones too. An important factor in this is mental health and wellbeing. However, we should be aware that many environmental factors can contribute to a person having mental health challenges, regardless of whether they are on the autism spectrum or not. For people with autism, if specific support needs are not met stress and anxiety can occur and potentially result in other mental health conditions. This is why the physical and sensory environment is very important for people with autism and giving them the correct supports in these areas can make such a difference.  See some of the resources related to sensory processing below. 

Recognising mental health

For parents and carers, it can sometimes be difficult to recognise the difference in certain behaviours, such as occasional moodiness and irritability and an emerging mental health problem, particularly during adolescence. Feeling down, tense, angry, anxious or moody are all normal emotions for young people, but when changes are new, noticeable and last for at least a few weeks, these may be part of a mental health problem.

Changes to look out for include:

  • Not enjoying or not wanting to be involved in things that they would normally enjoy
  • Marked changes in, or withdrawal from their usual level of communication with family and friends
  • Marked changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • Unusual weight gains or losses
  • Being more easily irritated or angry for no reason
  • Sudden unexplainable changes in mood, both positive and negative
  • When their participation and performance at school, TAFE, university or work is dropping
  • Involving themselves in risky behaviour that they would usually avoid, such as taking drugs or drinking too much alcohol
  • Changes in their ability to focus
  • Withdrawal from their usual relationships or unexplainable breakdown of relationships and friendships; sudden urges to seek solitude from normal social gatherings or family activities
  • Seeming to be unusually stressed, worried, down or crying for no reason
  • Expressing unusually negative, distressing or bizarre thoughts

Because a people on the autism spectrum are more likely to be vulnerable to mental health issues, two important ways that you can support them is to be alert to these signs, and if you are concerned, to seek early help and advice. A ‘symptom checker’ provided by a well-credentialed organisation such as Beyond Blue, measures depression and anxiety in the past four weeks and can be helpful in deciding if you or your child could benefit from professional help. Your answers and results remain confidential and after you take the test, you can print the results for your records or to give to a heath professional. Click here to visit the Beyond Blue ‘anxiety and depression checklist’.

A summary on mental health and wellbeing

  • The unique challenges of living with autism means that people on the autism spectrum and their families can be more susceptible to stressors that lead to emotional and behavioural issues and trigger mental health problems.
  • The most common mental health issues experienced by people on the autism spectrum include anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and disorders in eating, sleeping and toileting.
  • Autism traits can also make it more difficult for a person on the autism spectrum and especially children and teenagers to seek and obtain help for mental health problems, and can perpetuate a mental illness.
  • Autism traits can also mean that diagnosing mental health conditions for people on the autism spectrum can be problematic, and this is especially so for children.
  • Being aware of mental health issues, the role of stress and resilience in the lives of people on the autism spectrum and the options available for managing mental wellbeing can help us to take timely action to monitor, protect and build our children’s mental wellbeing. Maintaining open communication with our child also helps us to know when to seek professional advice.
  • As a parent or carer, taking care of your own physical and mental wellbeing is a vital way that you can help your child cope with stress and anxiety.

For a summary on mental health and ways in recognising behaviours which can be associated with mental health, read the full ‘mental health and wellbeing’ information resource here. The fact sheet was developed with the input of the Aspect Practice Advisory Group of adults with autism. You can hear more from them in our latest podcast by clicking here.  

Other resources

Other useful resources to assist in supporting people on the autism spectrum who are experiencing challenges with mental health are:

Aspect Practice ‘Mental health and wellbeing’ newsletter and podcast

To download Aspect Practice 'Mental health and wellbeing' Conversations newsletter and podcast, click here. To view past Focus newsletters, click here

Additional Resources

Structuring the Physical Environment

Creating Structure Through visually Represented Routines Factsheet

Supporting Structure and Predictability:

Creating structure through visually stated Rules

Supporting Structure Within Unstructured Environments

Mental health and wellbeing focus