Autism and mental health
Explains what autism is, how it relates to mental health, and where you can go for further information and support.
Autism is a neurodiverse condition that impacts the way you think and respond to the world around you. It’s a spectrum condition, which means it affects people in different ways. It’s sometimes called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a ‘developmental disability’. You may also hear the term 'Asperger’s syndrome', but doctors don't diagnose this anymore.
It isn't clear what causes autism and many experts believe it isn’t caused by just one thing. It can affect people in the same family, so researchers think that genes may play a role. But they need more evidence on this. Autism isn't caused by vaccines or the way someone has been brought up.
If you’re autistic you may experience things differently to non-autistic people. For example, you may:
- Interact with people differently. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make friends or have positive relationships. But you may need some help understanding non-autistic people’s language and behaviour. For example, you might find it hard to understand sarcasm or phrases like ‘it’s a walk in the park’.
- Have different sensory needs. For example, you might find bright lights, loud noises or strong smells overwhelming.
- Need more consistency and routine. You may find new situations difficult to cope with, and need some support to help you know what to expect. You may find repetitive activities and routine comforting. And changes to routines may be difficult.
It’s important that people give you the right support to help you live the way you want to. You might need very little support, or you might need some help, for example from a carer.
Autism isn’t a mental health problem. But if you’re autistic you may be more likely to experience a mental health problem.
You may also experience other conditions such as:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Learning disabilities
- Learning difficulties, like dyslexia
- Negative attitudes from other people. Non-autistic people may not understand or accept your differences. You may be more likely to experience stigma, discrimination, trauma and loneliness. All these experiences contribute to mental health problems.
- Differences in interacting with the world. You may have to navigate places which don’t meet your sensory, processing or communication needs. For example, you may find public transport stressful, or have difficulty with phone calls and some types of forms.
- Misdiagnosis. Some experiences of autism overlap with symptoms of mental health problems. This can mean that experiences of autism are mistaken for mental health problems. Misdiagnosis can make it harder to get the right help. And this can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression.
- Barriers to support. It can be difficult getting the right support, both for autism and for mental health problems. For example:
- It can take a long time to get an autism diagnosis, especially as an adult.
- Mental health and social care services may not understand how best to support you.
- Some people tell us that services don't take responsibility for their care and you may get passed between different services. These barriers can affect your mental health.
See the National Autistic Society's website for information on their campaign to support the rights and interests of autistic people and their families.
This includes a good practice guide on how mental health professionals can adapt talking therapies for autistic adults and children.
National Autistic Society
Support and guidance for autistic people and their families. Campaigns for improved rights, services and opportunities. This includes an:
- Autism services directory – listing local and national support options
- Online autism community – helping autistic people and their families to connect with each other and share experiences
- Autism Inpatient Mental Health Service (England) – providing advice to autistic people in England who are detained or about to be detained in a mental health hospital
- Guide to asking for reasonable adjustments – providing advice on how to ask talking therapies services to make themselves more accessible
Support in England and Wales for people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health needs. Services include help with housing, supported living, education and employment.
This information was published in September 2022. We'll revise it in 2025.
References and bibliography available on request.
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