Autism's Associated Medical and Mental-Health Conditions
The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional.
A number of medical and mental-health issues frequently accompany autism spectrum disorder. These include:
These autism-associated conditions and their treatments are described in brief below. For more information, also see Autism and Health: Advances in Understanding and Treating the Health Conditions that Frequently Accompany Autism.
Follow the title link to learn more and download this Special Report by Autism Speaks.
An estimated 30 percent of people with autism also suffer recurrent seizures, or epilepsy. Uncontrolled epilepsy can cause brain damage. So prompt evaluation and treatment are crucial.
Red flags include unexplained staring spells, unusual involuntary movements in the face or limbs, unexplained confusion and/or severe headaches. Other less-specific signs can include sleepiness or sleep disturbance, behavioral regression and sudden unexplained changes in mood or ability to control emotions.
Should you suspect that you or your child is suffering seizures, it’s crucial to seek an evaluation from a neurologist. He or she will likely perform a brain study called an electroencephalogram (EEG) to check for seizure-related brain activity.
For more information, also see Autism and Epilepsy and Having an Electroencephalogram (EEG): An ATN/AIR-P Guide for Parents and Providers.
Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are among the most common medical conditions associated with autism. These issues range from chronic constipation and/or diarrhea to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and inflammatory bowel conditions.
For more information, also see Autism and GI disorders and The ATN/AIR-P Guide for Managing Constipation in Children
Research suggests that more than half of children with autism have food-related challenges such as extremely selective eating and resistance to trying new foods. Many adults likewise report autism-related food sensitivities and aversions. Often these feeding challenge involve sensory issues and/or an extreme desire for sameness. Conversely, some children and adults who have autism struggle with uncontrolled overeating. These feeding issues are of concern because they can result in health problems ranging from under-nutrition to obesity.
Some autism specialty clinics, such as those in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN), have specialized feeding programs staffed by therapists and nutritionists. Even outside such programs, many speech/language therapists and some behavioral therapists and occupational therapists can assist with autism-related feeding issues.
For more information, also see the ATN/AIR-P guidebook Exploring Feeding Behavior in Autism: A Parent’s Guide
Many people affected by autism have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. Research also tells us that disrupted and insufficient sleep can worsen daytime behavior and learning – particularly in those who are affected by autism.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often accompanies autism and can present additional learning and coping challenges. If you suspect that you or your child has autism and ADHD, it’s important to get an evaluation from someone who is experienced in distinguishing both conditions, as some of their symptoms overlap. If the evaluation identifies ADHD, ask your or your child’s physician to work with you to tailor treatments appropriate to your needs and goals.
For more information, also see Autism: Should My Child Take Medicine for Challenging Behaviors?
Research suggests that at least a third of people affected by autism also have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include social phobia (fear of social situations), separation anxiety, excessive worry and other phobias. In addition, many people with autism have difficulty controlling their anxiety once something triggers it.
It’s important to remember that anxiety can range from occasional and relatively mild to chronic, severe and debilitating. Most people experience some form of anxiety on a regular basis. However, research suggests that high levels of anxiety interfere with success in school, work and social situations.
A recent review of studies found that behavioral interventions help many children and adults with autism control their anxiety. These approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy that’s customized to address anxiety in children and teens who have autism. Techniques include role-playing and very gradual exposure to feared situations.
For more information, also see Recognizing anxiety in children and teens with autism and Treating anxiety in children and teens with autism.
Research suggests that depression is common among teens and adults on the autism spectrum, but may be difficult to recognize. In part, this may stem from communication difficulties. In other words, people with autism may be less likely to recognize and express feelings of depression. Telltale signs can include loss of interest in favorite activities, neglect in personal hygiene and other self-care activities.
Depression can be so difficult to diagnose in those with autism. So if you suspect that you or your child may be experiencing depression, it’s important to see a mental health professional, ideally someone with expertise in both disorders.
For more information, also see What's the connection between autism and depression? and Understanding the complexity of depression in kids and teens with autism
Research suggests that OCD may be more common among teens and adults on the autism spectrum than it is in the general population. Typically, the obsessive compulsions develop in adolescence or young adulthood. However, it can be difficult to distinguish the symptoms of OCD from the repetitive behaviors and restricted interests that are a core symptom of autism. So if you suspect that you or your child has developed OCD in addition to autism, it’s best to seek an evaluation by a mental health provider who has experience with both conditions.
To learn more, also see A parent wonders: Are new repetitive behaviors OCD or ‘just autism’
Whole person care for autism
The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) brings together doctors and therapists specializing in the “whole person” care of children and teens who have autism. Together these clinicians work to improve autism healthcare by developing and sharing best practices that include treatment guidelines and parent tool kits addressing many of autism’s associated medical needs. This work is made possible by the ATN’s federally funded role as the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P).
To access these and other Autism Speaks tool kits, v.
- Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
- Find the ATN center nearest you here.
- Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories here.