Autism Depression Treatment and Side Effects

A 2019 review found that approximately 14% of autistic individuals will experience depression at some point in their lives. This is a significant number, considering that autistic people are almost four times more likely to experience depression than those without autism. 

The risk of depression also tends to increase with age in autistic individuals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression affects about 26% of people with autism. This is higher than the prevalence of depression in the general population, where almost 7% of all U.S. adults experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year.

autism depression treatment

Risk Factors for Depression in Autism

Various risk factors contribute to the increased likelihood of depression in individuals with autism. One such factor is the tendency for above-average attention to detail. While this attention to detail can be a strength, it may also lead to the overthinking of negative emotions or actions, thereby increasing the risk of depression.

Additionally, differences in executive function, which involves cognitive processes such as planning, problem-solving, and emotional regulation, can contribute to the higher risk of depression in individuals with autism. 

Difficulties in navigating social situations and interpreting social cues may also contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness, further increasing the risk of depression.

autism depression treatment

Treatment Options for Autism and Depression

There are various treatment approaches that can be considered for addressing depression in individuals with autism. These approaches aim to alleviate symptoms, improve overall well-being, and enhance the individual’s quality of life. 

Here, we’ll look at three key treatment options for both autism and depression.

Modified Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A 2015 study found that a modified form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was effective in treating depression in autistic individuals. CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. 

However, it may need to be tailored to the specific needs and characteristics of individuals with autism.

Modifications to traditional CBT for autism may include simplifying language, using visual aids, providing concrete examples, and incorporating the individual’s special interests or strengths into therapy sessions. This modified approach helps individuals with autism better understand and engage in the therapeutic process.

Through CBT, individuals with autism and depression can learn coping skills, challenge negative thoughts, and develop strategies to manage their emotions. It can also address any co-occurring anxiety or social difficulties that may exacerbate depressive symptoms.

Peer Support Groups

Peer support groups can be a valuable addition to the treatment plan for individuals with autism and depression. These groups provide a safe space for autistic individuals to connect with others who may be experiencing similar challenges. It offers an opportunity to share experiences, gain support, and learn coping strategies from peers who understand their unique perspectives.

Participating in peer support groups can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide a sense of belonging. It allows individuals to build social connections, enhance self-esteem, and develop valuable skills for managing depression. Peer support groups may be facilitated by professionals with expertise in autism and mental health or led by individuals with lived experience.


In some cases, healthcare professionals may prescribe medication to help manage depressive symptoms in individuals with autism. The types of medications prescribed may include antidepressants or antianxiety drugs. 

However, healthcare professionals must exercise caution and carefully consider the potential side effects that may occur in this population.

The decision to use medication as part of the treatment plan should be made on an individual basis, taking into account the severity of the depressive symptoms, the presence of any co-occurring conditions, and the overall health of the individual. Regular monitoring and close communication with healthcare professionals are important to assess the effectiveness and potential side effects of medication.

autism depression treatment

Recognizing Signs of Depression

Identifying signs of depression in individuals with autism can be challenging, particularly as these individuals may have difficulty expressing their emotions. Caregivers and parents play a vital role in recognizing changes in behavior that may indicate the presence of depression. 

While symptoms can vary from person to person, some common signs of depression to look out for include:

  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • Increased irritability or agitation
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness

It is important to note that individuals with autism may exhibit these signs differently or may have difficulty communicating their emotions. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain open lines of communication and observe any changes in behavior that deviate from their typical patterns.

Guidance for Parents and Caregivers

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in supporting individuals with autism and depression. Due to that, parents and caregivers should be informed and equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide effective support. 

Here are some guidelines they can follow:

autism depression treatment

By recognizing the importance of individualized care and providing guidance for caregivers, it will be possible to address depression effectively in individuals with autism. 

Moreover,  collaborating with healthcare professionals and mental health experts can further enhance the support provided and improve the overall well-being of autistic individuals with depression.

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