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Study Highlights Depression's Impact on Autistic People

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What we learned: A new study published May 14 looked at how depression impacts cognitive abilities among people on the autism spectrum. Researchers looked at proactive control, a cognitive process that “allows you to follow directions or achieve certain goals without getting distracted,” said study author Marie Krug in a news release. Neurotypical and neurodiverse study participants had similar levels of proactive control, but autistic participants with depression were more likely to struggle.

  • Those on the spectrum who had more symptoms of depression were less able to use their proactive control skills
  • Researchers also looked at the potential impact of repetitive behaviors (stimming), anxiety and ADHD among autistic participants, but these factors didn’t impact proactive control
  • Many people with depression experience rumination, repeatedly dwelling on negative thoughts. Researchers theorized that rumination may crowd out other cognitive abilities.

How we know this: Researchers showed 44 neurotypical and 44 autistic participants between ages 12 to 22 to measure proactive control using photos with correct and incorrect labels. For example, a picture of a dog might be labeled with “bird” instead. Cognitive processing ability was measured by reaction time to the picture/word test. A slower reaction time correlated with lower proactive control.

The Frontlines: The connection between autism and depression isn’t new. Previous research highlighted that those on the spectrum have a higher risk of mental health issues across the board.

  • One review found people on the spectrum are four times more likely to struggle with depression compared to their typical counterparts.
  • A study published in 2019 suggested that people on the spectrum were approximately twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder than those who are neurotypical.
  • Another study found that autistic women are eight times more likely to die by suicide compared to typical people.

Taking a closer look: It’s difficult to boil down the root causes behind any mental health struggle. While some of the cause may be genetic or biological, neurodiverse people face significant social stressors that are associated with mental health issues.

  • Many autistic people use masking when they’re engaging with people who don’t understand neurodiversity. Not only is masking exhausting, it can have a major mental health impact.
  • Kids on the spectrum are more likely to experience bullying, a common risk factor for mental health issues. Research shows 44% of autistic people have experienced bullying in their lifetime.
  • Experts and the general public alike often view autism as something that needs to be “cured,” but autism isn’t a disease. The resulting invalidation and attempts to suppress autistic characteristics can be painful and harmful to your mental health.

Get more on autism: Sign up for our weekly autism newsletter.

A Mighty voice: Our contributor, Erin Clemens, explained how depression impacts her as someone on the spectrum. “Depression is difficult for me as someone on the autism spectrum. It manifests itself in unique ways, and it can become confusing and exhausting. The important thing I have to remember is to be kind to myself.”

From the community:

Most favorite/ least favorite: Emotions edition

What to do if you’re struggling: If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network recommends the AASPIRE Healthcare Toolkit to navigate finding a provider who affirms neurodiversity, including advice for finding mental health care.

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Header image via Joshua Rawson-Harris/Unsplash

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