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Autism and Depression

Table of Contents

It is estimated that 7% of the general population in the United States has experienced at least one depressive episode in the past 12 months. 

Yet that number is almost six times greater in the autistic population, where 40% of adults and 8% of children have experienced a depressive episode in the same period.  

Researchers don’t know why people with autism are more prone to depression.

But they do know that depression in the autistic population is treatable. 

ABA therapy has traditionally been instrumental in helping alleviate the crippling symptoms of depression, especially in children with autism. 

At Heartlinks, we have not only specialized therapists to diagnose a child with autism and treat their depression but also the ability to customize their therapy plan. Thereby ensuring your child’s unique needs are monitored and met.

Let Heartlinks help you lift the darkness of depression. 

What is the Link Between Autism and Depression?

For years, researchers have been presenting different theories explaining why children and adults with autism are more prone to depression than the general population. 

Young girl looking out of the window

What has emerged is the understanding that several factors together may contribute to the co-occurrence of these conditions.


Studies have indicated that children with autism are more likely to get bullied. Whether at school or in the neighborhood. The result of bullying can be a plethora of lifelong mental health problems, such as depression. 


One of the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a tendency to focus on certain things while ignoring others. This is known as an attentional bias or ruminating. Research has shown that if adults and children with ASD start focusing on negative emotions and ignore the positive ones, they will often become depressed.  

Social Pressure

Research has highlighted that many teens on the spectrum feel tremendous social pressure to act a certain way. They also feel pressure to interact with others in particular ways. Yet often, younger people with ASD cannot do this for several reasons. This, in turn, leads them to feel isolated and excluded, which is a slippery slope toward depression.  

What are the Symptoms of Depression in Children with Autism?

In some situations, children with autism might exhibit similar symptoms of depression as the general population. Yet children with autism might have difficulty recognizing and expressing their feelings.

Other symptoms of depression in ASD children and teens include the following:

  • Crying frequently
  • Physical changes, including weight gain or loss.
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Lack of energy or overall fatigue
  • Talking or moving slowly
  • Feeling empty, numb, or sad
  • Experiencing physical pain with no apparent cause (i.e., headaches, cramps, and digestive issues)
  • Expressing suicidal tendencies or thoughts of self-harm.

As a parent, it’s crucial that you pay attention to these symptoms and whether they have an obvious explanation. 

For instance, if your child stayed up late last night to finish their homework, that might explain their feelings of tiredness and why they’re acting so irritable.

By comparison, if these symptoms of depression persist for weeks, they might very well indicate something more extensive, like a major depressive episode. 

At Heartlinks, we recommend that our parents keep a journal to track their child’s different behaviors and moods. This type of written record tends to be far more reliable than a person’s memory. 

How is Depression in Autistic Children Treated?

Traditionally, clinical depression is treated with medication, therapy, or both. 

Much of therapy around treating depression is related to talking. This can be difficult if you have a child with ASD with limited language skills. 

This is where one of the long-standing psychotherapeutic approaches to treating depression, ABA therapy, or applied behavior analysis, is crucial when working with autistic children.

Applied behavior analysts draw on a branch of ABA therapy to treat depressive children with ASD called BA (Behavioral Activation). It uses positive reinforcement for behaviors that feel good to the child.

Girl having fun in ABA therapy

Children with ASD, like much of the general population, cope with depression by avoiding certain situations. While that might feel good at first, eventually, this type of behavior will only exacerbate their depression and anxiety. 

Our Behavior Analysts use the ABA approach to determine what gives their young clients pleasure and joy.

Then they introduce scheduled activities and outings to slowly re-engage their clients in the things they once liked to do before they became depressed. The analyst monitors this approach and is mindful of the client’s needs.

Our Behavior Analysts carefully select activities and outings their clients will most likely feel successful about once completed. 

Throughout the process, the Behavior Analyst will acknowledge the child’s success in each activity and build on that feeling by scheduling more of them. Slowly but surely, the child with ASD will feel better about themself and move towards becoming a full-time participant in their life again.

Now’s the Time to Ask for Help!

Though researchers have not reached a conclusive explanation as to why children with autism are more prone to depression than others, they know that ABA therapy is one of the most effective treatments.

Whether you’ve just started noticing signs of depression in your child with ASD or it has been a while, now’s the time to reach out. Help is available.

With locations across the United States, our trained team of specialists can help with everything from a diagnosis of autism to treating depression.

Let us help you take the first step in alleviating your child’s sadness. 

Heartlinks is just a phone call or email away.

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