Asperger's Syndrome and Depression in Teens

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Teens and adults with Asperger's syndrome and autism are at a higher risk of developing depression. Exact numbers differ; one study [Tantum, 1991] showed that 15% of all adults with AS also had signs of depression. Another study completed in 2000 [Kim et al, 2000] showed this group to be even higher, indicating as ┬ámany as one in three adults with AS also had clinical depression.

    One of the most common reasons for depression was that individuals with AS wanted and needed emotional connections with other people but lacked the social skills to make and maintain friendships. This led to feeling unaccepted, misunderstood and lonely. Some teens and adults continued to try to make friends or be like other people but over and over felt as if they had failed, making them feel like they were socially "defective." Unfortunately, one of the myths about autism and related conditions, such as Asperger's, is that those with these conditions choose to be alone and prefer not to interact with others. While this may be true for some, many people with AS want to be liked and accepted and crave social and emotional interaction with others.

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    Depression can, unfortunately, create a cycle of despair. Feelings of depression can result in someone withdrawing from social settings. This decreases their chances to practice social skills and interact with others, which only tends to deepen the depression. In addition, because it is hard for those with AS to verbally express their emotions, they may hide their depression, not being able to find the words to explain how they feel. Because of this, the depression goes unnoticed and untreated, prolonging feelings of worthlessness.

    Some of the ways depression shows up in adolescents:

    An overall depressed mood or feeling of sadness, not associated with a major life event that would be expected to cause sadness, such as a death, and lasts more than two weeks. Can show up outwardly with moaning, whining, withdrawal or aggression.

    Decreased interest in "special interests." Usually teens with AS focus on a specific topic of interest. The time they spend interacting with the interest helps relieve tension and stress and is considered to be relaxing. Conversations are usually filled with facts or references to the special interest. Although there can be times when a teen loses interest in a topic, it is usually replaced by a new area of interest within a few weeks. If your teen seems to have lost interest, no longer talks about or spends time learning about his interest, it may be a sign of depression.

    Loss of appetite or increased appetite. Individuals with depression, both with and without AS, can lose interest in eating. For some, food is a way to "drown their sorrows" and they eat more. Changes in appetite may be a sign that something more serious is going on.

    Behavior changes. As parents, you know your child's or teen's behavior and mood best. If you see increased agitation, clinginess, confusion or your child needing constant reassurances, there may be something amiss. Remember, these behaviors should be a change from previous behaviors.

  • Changes in special interest. Besides losing interest or missing opportunities to participate in events surrounding his special interest, your child might change interests, becoming preoccupied with death or morbid topics.

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    Expresses frustration with relationships. Your child may use phrases such as "No one loves me" or "No one wants me around." If you begin hearing your teen making these types of statements, he may be suffering from depression.

    Depression is treatable and if you begin to notice any of the signs of depression, talk to your child's doctor, psychiatrist or therapist as soon as possible.


    Atwood, Tony, The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, 2008, Jessica Kingsley Press

    Bolick, Teresa, Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Helping Preteens & Teens Get Ready for the Real World, 2004, Fair Winds Press

    Ozonoff, Sally, Dawson, Geraldine, McPartland, James, A Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive, 2002, The Guilford Press

Published On: July 28, 2011