Depression can occur in just about anyone. Because depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain that does not allow for a natural balance between the “happy” and “sad” biochemicals, anyone can find themselves at odds with depression at any juncture in their lives. Typically, depression hits those who have had a traumatic experience in their lives and either have not overcome it on their own or not sought sufficient help to deal with the source of the depression. But depression can hit without a trauma too.
The brains of autistic children are already altered at the point where they were to gradually grow into the brains they will have the rest of their lives. Essentially, brain scans of children and adults with autism clearly show their brains are “damaged” when in comparison to the average human brain. The question is raised then “Can children with autism become depressed?”
The answer is yes, it’s a probability. Depression in these children is difficult to diagnose because if they can’t speak they can’t tell you how they feel, physically or emotionally. Since key diagnostics in depression is how well someone functions, behaves and feels physically and emotionally, in a child or person with autism this is very difficult. Since their moods are not quite apparent, their behaviors are erratic, and half the children won’t let you touch them and feel defensive and oversensitive when you do, you cannot tell if they are in pain from depression, acting out from depression, or not acting at all because of depression. Long term observation and recording of the child by a parent is necessary to determine if the child is depressed.
On the other hand, a high functioning and speaking autistic child can clearly tell you how he or she feels emotionally and physically, and then you can get them the help they need right away. Be forewarned; many pediatricians and pediatric psychiatrists are a little wary at prescribing medication to an autistic child to treat depression because there’s some uncertainty in how they work in the modified brains of these children. However, some medications often prescribed for anxiety but have been shown to work for depressions as well are prescribed to these children with very good results.
Hyperactivity medications seem to affect the moods of children with autism as well. Medications meant to treat ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have shown to alter some signs of depression in children with autism, questioning the previous diagnosis of either depression or ADHD. Complicating matters further, children who seem to have both autism and bipolar disorder make it difficult to differentiate between true bipolar disorder, depression, AND ADHD.
If your child presents with a constant low mood, irritability not otherwise triggered, and cries frequently, it is much more likely that they have depression even if they can’t tell you how they feel. A trip to the child’s pediatrician to rule out any physical ailments will also help document medically the behavior they present to you and others. If it still isn’t completely apparent but you suspect it, you can start keeping a diary of the daily activity level and moods of your child. After about a month to three months, you can present it to a behavior analyst who works with children with autism. The behavior analyst will be able to tell you even more than a pediatric psychiatrist can tell you about what’s going on with your child.
Other resources to consult on this difficult to diagnose matter, when your child is non-verbal, are the local chapters of NAMI for mental health, as well as the parent support groups. The parent support groups for autistic children may have a parent or two who has been through a similar situation, and can offer helpful advice on how to deal with your situation.
What about autism compared to mental retardation?