Understanding the Relationship Between Bipolar Disorder and Autism

Bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share some common traits and may even share some genetic roots. However, they are distinct conditions that require different diagnosis and treatment approaches. This article will explore the similarities and differences between bipolar disorder and ASD, provide tips for seeking proper diagnosis and care, and share resources for support.

Understanding the Relationship Between Bipolar Disorder and Autism
Understanding the Relationship Between Bipolar Disorder and Autism

Understanding the Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Autism

This disorder is classified as a mental illness, while ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. However, researchers have found some connections between the two:

  • About 7% of autistic individuals also have a diagnosis of this disorder, nearly three times the rate in the general population.
  • Around 40% of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder exhibit traits of ASD.
  • There appear to be some shared genetic factors between autism, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions like schizophrenia. This likely explains some of the overlapping symptoms.
  • Autistic people tend to have higher rates of mental health issues like bipolar disorder due to disability-related stress.

While the link is still being explored, it is clear that autistic individuals are at an increased risk for bipolar disorder. Likewise, those with bipolar disorder are more likely to exhibit autistic traits. However, the two conditions have distinct diagnostic criteria and treatment approaches.

Comparing Bipolar Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Bipolar disorder and autism can look similar in some ways, but there are important differences:

Onset and Development

  • Bipolar disorder is typically diagnosed in adolescence or early adulthood. Symptoms can appear at any time, often triggered by a stressful event.
  • ASD is a developmental disorder – symptoms must be present in early childhood, usually before age 3.

Diagnostic Criteria

  • Bipolar disorder diagnosis focuses on mood disturbances like manic and depressive episodes.
  • ASD diagnosis is based on social communication challenges, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, and sensory issues – not mood.

Symptom Presentation

  • Bipolar disorder involves clear cycles between highs (mania) and lows (depression).
  • ASD does not involve cycling mood episodes, though co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety and depression are common.
  • Autistic symptoms like stimming and sensory sensitivities are consistent, not cycling.
  • Impulsivity and aggression occur in both conditions but for different reasons.
  • Only autism includes communication difficulties and developmental delays.

Seeking Proper Diagnosis and Care

Given the potential for overlap between bipolar disorder and ASD, thorough evaluation is important for proper diagnosis and treatment. Here are some tips:

  • Seek a trained professional or team with expertise in both autism and mental health. Misdiagnosis is common.
  • Be prepared to share detailed history about when symptoms first appeared, how they have developed over time, and whether any cycling mood episodes have occurred.
  • Note any family history of ASD, bipolar disorder, or other mental health conditions.
  • List medications and therapies tried, and how effective they were.
  • Explain social communication difficulties, sensory issues, developmental delays, repetitive behaviors, special interests, etc.
  • Bring supporting documentation like past assessments, report cards, and evaluations.

Ongoing monitoring of symptoms and response to treatment is also key. What works for bipolar disorder may not help ASD, and vice versa. Finding the right providers and therapies can take time.

Treatment Considerations for Co-Occurring Bipolar Disorder and Autism

Treatment for autism often involves behavioral therapies and interventions, while bipolar disorder is more commonly treated with medication:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the most researched autism therapy, but it is controversial. Consider your child’s unique needs.
  • Social skills training, speech therapy, and occupational therapy address core autism challenges.
  • Mood stabilizers like lithium are frontline medications, sometimes with antipsychotics or antidepressants.
  • Talk therapy and CBT help manage bipolar disorder episodes and build coping strategies.
  • Anxiety and ADHD medications may be warranted if co-occurring.
  • Consistency across environments is key for autistic individuals. Coordinate with providers and school staff.
  • Avoid triggers like busy noisy settings, schedule changes, and sensory overload.
  • Leverage strengths like special interests to motivate positive behaviors.
  • Functional behavior assessments can identify causes of challenging behaviors.
  • Teach communication strategies to express feelings and needs safely.

With careful diagnosis and integrated treatment, those with both bipolar disorder and autism can thrive. Finding the right mix of therapies takes time and patience.

Supporting Someone with Co-Occurring Bipolar Disorder and Autism

For parents and caregivers, having a loved one dually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and autism can be challenging. Here are some tips to provide support:

  • Educate yourself on both conditions – knowledge is empowering.
  • Help them make sense of the diagnoses – ask how they feel and what questions they have.
  • Patience is key – progress happens slowly. Celebrate small wins.
  • Focus on strengths to build confidence and motivation.
  • Adjust communication to suit their abilities and sensitivities.
  • Create consistency using schedules, visual aids, and routines.
  • Limit sensory input based on their needs – noise, crowds, scents, etc.
  • Encourage self-care like sleep, nutrition, exercise, and creative outlets.
  • Watch for warning signs of cycling moods so you can intervene early.
  • Have crisis plans for suicidal thinking, mania, meltdowns, or aggression. Know your resources.
  • Connect with other families – support groups can be very helpful.
  • Take care of yourself too – you can’t help effectively if you’re burned out.

With comprehensive treatment tailored to your child’s needs, ongoing support, and open communication, those with bipolar disorder and autism can thrive. Stay hopeful – you’ve got this!

Finding Specialized ABA Therapy for Autism in Maryland

If you’re seeking intensive ABA therapy from experienced professionals in Maryland, Jade ABA Therapy is here to help. We specialize in:

  • In-home ABA therapy from compassionate, highly trained therapists
  • Individualized treatment using research-backed techniques
  • A strengths-based approach to develop confidence and skills
  • Close coordination with families, schools, doctors, and other providers
  • Supporting the whole child – we see their unique potential!

Our outstanding ABA therapists have helped many Maryland children gain communication, social, academic, and real-world skills to live a fulfilling life. We use creative methods tailored to each child’s needs and interests.

Get started with world-class, in-home ABA therapy for your child by calling (410) 616-0901 or emailing info@jadeaba.org today. Our team is ready to partner with you and help your child thrive!


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[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnostic Criteria. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html

[9] Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. (2019). Genomic Relationships, Novel Loci, and Pleiotropic Mechanisms across Eight Psychiatric Disorders. Cell, 179(7), 1469–1482.e11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2019.11.020

[10] Aldinger, F., & Schulze, T. G. (2017). Environmental factors, life events, and trauma in the course of bipolar disorder. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 71(1), 6–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcn.12433

[11] National Institute of Mental Health. Bipolar Disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder

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