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New research reveals the causes of depression in teens with autism

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

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New Edith Cowan University (ECU) research has shed light on the factors that contribute to depression in adolescents with autism, and the warning signs for parents.

The number of Australians living with autism is growing. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show around 1 in 150 (or 164,000 people) had autism in 2015, of which 83 per cent were under 25. This figure is up from an estimated 64,400 people in 2009.

Just like most teens, significant negative life events and problems with friends and relationships can play a key role in triggering depression in adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

But compared to typically developing individuals, people with ASD are four times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime.

ECU researcher and clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Gallagher's PhD study explored the psychological risk factors of developing depression in adolescents living with ASD aged 12 to 17 years, and their mother's role in seeking help.

Dr Gallagher said adolescence sees an increase in depressive symptoms among typically developing 12 to 17-year-olds, and individuals living with ASD also share this experience.

"Kids living with ASD are trying to navigate the events that take place during adolescence, but with impaired social skills, which can certainly create some difficulties for them," she said.

Risk factors

Dr Gallagher's research found that adolescents with ASD had the same predictors of depression as typically developing youth.

"Significant negative life events were a key predictor, for example parents' divorce, change of school, moving house, or a death in the family," Dr Gallagher said.

"Other significant risk factors were peer victimisation, lack of peer relationships and an absence of reciprocal social exchange.

"This was somewhat of a surprise, given that the stereotype is that children with ASD aren't really interested in friendships," she said.

Mother's key role

The second part of Dr Gallagher's research explored mothers' capacity to recognise depressive symptoms in their child with ASD and seek formal services.

"What is unique about ASD adolescents is their heavy reliance on their mothers to access formal support for depressive symptoms because of their age group and complex needs.

"But these symptoms can be hard for mothers to recognise because there is often an overlap in the symptoms of depression and autism traits," Dr Gallagher said.

"For example, often children with ASD withdraw and want to spend time on their own, and that is also a symptom of depression, but there are signs to be aware of.

""Parents should keep an eye out for behaviour that is different from what they normally see in their child. For example, if their child withdraws more or there's an increase in unusual behaviour, that could flag a risk of depressive symptoms," Dr Gallagher said.

Dr Gallagher hopes that her research may contribute to a better understanding of depressive symptoms in adolescents with ASD, and potentially help parents to recognise the symptoms and seek help from formal services.

"I'd like to break the stereotypes of what we know of adolescents with ASD. They have similar difficulties to what typically developing teenagers face. Depression and mental health issues are very real for children with ASD.

"Don't be afraid to pay attention. Go and see your health professional, and if you're not satisfied with the first answer you get, seek a second opinion if you think something is not right," Dr Gallagher said.

Dr Gallagher also reported that she examined only mother's help-seeking behaviour due to the constraints of her project. She highlighted that fathers also play an important role in the lives and mental health of their adolescents with ASD, but it was not examined in her research. She stressed that father's help-seeking behaviour needed to be further examined.

Dr Gallagher's PhD thesis ‘Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: Understanding the influence of psychosocial risk factors and mothers' help-seeking behaviour on the experience of depressive symptoms' is published on the ECU website.

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