It’s not unusual for people Asperger syndrome to be be depressed. Studies have varied somewhat, but generally the rate of depression of those with Asperger’s is over 3 times that of the normal population. Studies have suggested that 18% to 22% of those with AS have depression compared with 6.7% of the general population. The times of highest risk for depression are late adolescence and young adulthood.
Most of the research shows both genders have these high rates of depression. Non-autistic full siblings and half-siblings of individuals with ASD (not just Asperger syndrome) also had higher rates of depression than the general population, although at half the rate of those with ASD. Large studies haven’t supported genetics as an explanation for this increased rate of depression.
This tendency to depression is particularly true for those with higher intelligence and capacity for self-reflection who have awareness of their social difficulties. They often internalize their negative experiences and feelings of loneliness into their sense of self and their outlook for the future.
Studies of suicide attempts are also very troubling. In studies of suicide, the rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts are prevalent in those with AS, especially in adolescence and young adulthood.
It’s critical to identify depression, since it can be treated. In addition to medications that help many, CBT has also been found to be helpful, with accommodations for the processing of those with AS. There are studies indicating that neurobiofeedback might be helpful with depression as well.
There are several frequently cited problems that contribute to depression:
- Many people with AS aren’t identified as having AS; about half of the individuals studied in a large sample were identified having an ASD only after being diagnosed with depression. A significant number of people with AS don’t understand themselves or have anyone else understand the internal stress and pain they were experiencing
- People with AS are often lonely and feel their friendships aren’t “quality.” Those who have friends may have a lower tendency towards depression.
- Studies have suggested that a majority of those with AS experience bullying. The wounds of bullying stay deeply ingrained in their sense of self-esteem.
- In the later teenage and young adult years, those with AS are under stress to make the transition to college, increasing independence and jobs. In addition to social problems, many feel that they lack the adaptive skills as well as the executive functioning skills to “make it” on their own.
The possibility of depression and even suicidality make it critical that those with AS are identified and that supports be available as early as possible. It’s critical for adults to understand that while AS children and teens are doing well academically, they are suffering. Supports such as speech and language therapy to develop pragmatic language, social skills groups and counseling available to children in schools and communities, but resources are often insufficient. Increased awareness of need and parent pressure is driving the creation of more supports in and out of schools.
Supports for adults are much harder to find. To address loneliness, there are chat groups, support groups and meetups online: https://www.myaspergers.net/adults-with-aspergers/lonely-find-aspergers-support-group/. It’s important to vet chat groups to make sure that they are constructive and helpful.
Social media can be a good way to connect, although the research has been mixed about how well online friendship translates into face to face skills. Most people present “online selves” on social media: Instagram posts of parties, friendships and good times that don’t accurately reflect the fact that all people experience stress and problems; comparing oneself to these unrealistic picture can exacerbate depression for everyone!
To help develop relationship and independence skills, there are online websites such as Aspergers101, YouTube videos and blogs by and for those with AS. There are useful books for coping skills, such as the Tony Attwood series, “Been There, Done That, Try This!”; many books offering help for handling school, college, jobs, relationships and marriage are published by Jessica Kingsley publishers.
What’s needed are early diagnosis of both AS and depression, accessible mental health services by professionals who understand AS, real-time, face to face supports and a community based culture that understands and values neurodiverse individuals. We need groups, coaching and shared living spaces for those wanting to move out and on but not ready for total independence.Those with AS have much to contribute: dedication, reliability, unique insights and often expertise, and employers are beginning to recognize the value of AS employees. Parents and AS individuals are working to educate the community and create the resources needed, and AS individuals themselves can use social media and meetups to find others in their area to serve as a support system. Slowly we’re having success in educating others and in creating what’s needed.