Autism and mental health

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how people communicate and experience the world around them. It isn’t a mental health problem.

*Last updated: 4 October 2021

Autism is a spectrum condition, meaning it affects people in different ways. Around one in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum.

Over the years, different terms have been used with autism. We use ‘autistic person’ on this page to reflect the growing preference for identity-first language, but it’s important you use the language that feels most comfortable for you. 

What is autism?

No two autistic people are the same. Autistic people have varying needs ranging from 24-hour care to simply needing a little more time to understand things, for example.

However, there are certain traits that most autistic people experience to some degree. These include:

  • difficulty recognising or understanding other people’s feelings and expressing their own
  • finding things like bright lights, loud noises and crowded spaces stressful or upsetting
  • preferring familiar routines and feeling anxious or upset about unexpected changes or unfamiliar situations
  • highly focused interests or hobbies
  • taking longer to understand information.

While autism can come with challenges, some autistic people find there are positive things about their condition: for example, being more creative, determined, focused or accepting than other people.

Experiencing any of these doesn’t necessarily mean you’re autistic. But if these traits are always present and are affecting your life, you could talk to your doctor about getting a diagnosis.

Autism and mental health

Just like everyone, autistic people can have good mental health. However, according to autism research charity Autistica, seven out of ten autistic people have a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

There is little research into why this is, but it may be because autistic people:

  • can struggle to try to fit into or make sense of the world, which can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety
  • may face delays in getting their mental health problems diagnosed
  • are more likely to face stigma and discrimination
  • are less likely to have appropriate support available. For example, group therapy might not be suitable for some autistic people, or therapists might not know how to adapt their approach to help an autistic person.

Getting help with your mental health

If you’re autistic and need help with your mental health, it’s important to try and get the right support. You can start by talking to your doctor about how you’re feeling. The National Autistic Society has tips on making your appointment more comfortable such as having a friend come with you, asking your doctor to give you more time to answer questions or requesting that the lights are dimmer to avoid sensory overload.

Your doctor may refer you for talking therapy (or you can refer yourself if you live in England). You may want to ask your therapist if they have any experience of working with autistic people. The National Autistic Society has a directory you can search to find therapists who are either autistic or understand how to work with autistic people.

You may be prescribed medication for a mental health condition. The National Autistic Society has a guidebook for autistic adults who are given medication for their mental health. It has more information on why it might have been prescribed, possible side-effects, preparing for a medication review and monitoring your own health.

Sometimes a doctor will refer someone to a psychiatrist. They can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. Ambitious about Autism has information about making the most of a visit to a psychiatrist.

There are ways you can help yourself too. For example, Autistica has tips for managing your mental health that were developed during the coronavirus pandemic but may be useful for other times too.

Autistica also has a free app called Molehill Mountain that can help autistic people understand and manage their anxiety.

Useful resources and information

Ambitious about Autism has information on how to self-regulate in difficult times as well as tips on managing anxiety for young people and families. Some of this was created in response to the coronavirus pandemic but is useful for other situations too.

The National Autistic Society has a mental health hub with information anxiety, depression, OCD and other conditions. They include information on how the symptoms and treatments might be the same or different for autistic people.

Autistica also has information on autism and mental health conditions in their ‘What is autism?’ section.