Just like any young person, autistic children and teenagers can experience good mental health, or go through periods in which they are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. However, autistic people can be more at risk of experiencing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, OCD or eating disorders.
As with anyone, these issues can be caused by a range of life experiences, including stress at school, changes or separation within their family, being bullied or going through a bereavement.
Autistic people may also experience mental health issues because they:
- find day-to-day life, routines and social interactions stressful or difficult to cope with.
- feel particularly overwhelmed or anxious about change.
- find it difficult to make sense of or express their feelings, including challenges around language and communication.
- feel worried about social situations, including feeling a pressure to ‘fit in’ or that they don’t ‘fit in’.
- find relationships difficult to navigate, or feel unsure about how to make connections with others.
If your child is autistic and they are struggling with their mental health...
It can be incredibly challenging and worrying for you as their parent – and it might feel hard to know how you can help.
Remember there are things you can do to support your child and make things better – including working on practical strategies together and finding the right professional help if they need it.
For more information and advice on supporting your autistic child with their mental health, have a look at the National Autistic Society's website.
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental condition that affects how someone sees the world and interacts with other people. Because it is a spectrum condition, autism affects people in different ways – and individuals can experience different aspects of the condition to greater or lesser extents.
While experiencing one or more of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean someone is autistic, most autistic people tend to experience the following things to some extent:
- difficulty recognising or understanding other people's feelings, and expressing their own
- being over- or under-sensitive to things like loud noises and bright lights, and finding crowded noisy spaces challenging
- preferring familiar routines and finding unexpected changes to those routines challenging or distressing
- having intense and specific interests in certain things
- difficulty reading body language and facial expressions, and understanding figurative language such as irony and sarcasm
The National Autistic Society’s videos give a useful idea of what some of these things might feel like from the perspective of an autistic young person.
Depending on your child’s age, some other things you may notice could include sensitivity to certain clothes or textures, sensitivity to particular foods, tastes or smells, or thinking about things very literally.
It’s useful to understand that autism can present differently in girls and can be missed – meaning that a diagnosis may not be given until much later. Some autistic girls mask or camouflage autistic traits more than boys do, and teachers at school can also be less likely to report autistic traits in girls.
Autism does not mean something is 'wrong' with your child. Autistic people may sometimes need support and adjustments to thrive but can also be incredibly creative and conceptual thinkers.
Supporting your autistic child with their mental health
Starting a conversation
If you’re concerned that your child is struggling, try to open up a conversation with them about what’s going on.
Sometimes, these things can help your child to open up:
Find a place to talk that is quiet and calm.
Things like background noise or bright lighting can be distracting and make a difficult conversation much harder.
Try talking while doing an activity.
Chatting side-to-side instead of face-to-face might be easier. This could be something like driving, walking or colouring-in together.
Find out what kind of communication works for them.
Are there things that would make talking to you easier – such as speaking in a particular place or at a certain time? Would they prefer to text, write something down, draw something or have time in advance to think about their answers?
Try asking closed, direct questions.
While everyone is different, and you will know what works best for your child, autistic people can find open questions such as "How was your day?" much harder to answer than something more defined, like "Did anything happen today that upset you?"
During conversations, allow enough time for them to answer.
Your child may need some time to process your question and respond to it. When waiting for an answer, it might feel tempting to ask the question again or rephrase it – but it’s okay to leave some silence sometimes.
Other strategies that can help
Below are some more tips for how you can support your autistic child.
If there’s a change in their routine coming up, help them to prepare for it in advance, and think together about what might help them cope.
Having time to rest in a way that works for them can prevent things from building up and becoming overwhelming.
Meltdowns and shutdowns are not tantrums and naughtiness – they are an expression of autistic overwhelm and your child needs space, calm and compassion to regulate themselves.
Encourage them to come up with their own ideas based on what works for them.
Having people around them who understand them can help to reduce day-to-day stress. This could include teachers at school or other family members. It can be more helpful to focus on this, rather than expecting your child to be able to significantly change their own behaviour.
This includes eating well, getting regular exercise, staying hydrated by drinking things like juice or water, getting enough sleep and spending time with loved ones.
Below, you can find out how to go about this.
Be persistent. You know your child best and what is more likely to help them.
The National Autistic Society provides more information and advice for parents and carers on supporting an autistic young person with different mental health conditions.
Other parents in this situation have found it helpful to remember that some commonly advised parenting strategies can be unhelpful for autistic children. Don’t put pressure on yourself to follow certain things just because others are – focus on finding what works for you and your child.
Don't get hung up on comparisons with other children or parenting 'advice' which may not be right for your child and your family.
Getting an assessment or diagnosis
If you think your child may be autistic and they have not been referred for an assessment, speak to a professional. They can talk things through with you and help you get a referral if your child needs one. You can speak to:
- your GP
- a health visitor, who your family may be in touch with if your child is under five
- your child’s teacher
- the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) or special educational needs (SEN) staff at your child’s school
- a private healthcare provider, if this is an affordable option for you
- any other kind of health professional you or your child sees, such as a therapist
It’s a good idea to prepare what you want to say before speaking to a professional. It often helps to make a list of times you have noticed certain behaviours or times when your child has been particularly distressed, including any triggers.
If you do not think the professional is taking you seriously, try speaking to someone else from the list. You can also ask your surgery for an appointment with a different GP.
If your child is referred for an assessment, a team of specialists will see them and you will then receive a report with their decision. It’s worth bearing in mind that this can be a relatively long process, and that you may have to wait for a decision. If you are unhappy with the assessment outcome, you can ask your GP to arrange for a second opinion.
Finding mental health support
Speaking to your GP is usually the first step to accessing mental health services through the NHS. Your GP can provide information and advice, and discuss the options around treatment and support with you. Depending on how your child is feeling, they may refer them for an assessment by a mental health specialist or to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
To support your child to attend an appointment, it might help to give them a clear idea beforehand about what will happen and to prepare together for how they might cope with any challenges. You can also ask your GP to make adjustments such as:
- dimming the lights in the room
- letting you wait somewhere quiet, or letting you wait outside the surgery and calling you in when the GP is ready
- doing a home visit if your child is struggling to leave the house to attend appointments
Counsellors and therapists can help your child to make sense of how they’re feeling and work with them to find ways of coping. It’s a good idea to find a counsellor or therapist who’s experienced in working with autistic children and young people.
Read our guide to find out how to access counselling or therapy for your child.
Your child’s school should be able to provide specialist help to support your child’s education and emotional wellbeing at school if needed – particularly through their special educational needs (SEN) staff. The school should assess and understand your child’s needs, and put measures in place to meet these. This is called SEN support (or sometimes IEP in primary schools), and should be available within the school’s existing resources.
If your child’s needs cannot be met within the school, they may be entitled to an Education, Health and Care (EHC) assessment and plan (EHCP). The assessment is carried out by your local authority, who also write the plan with input from other professionals such as an Educational Psychologist. If your child receives a plan, it will detail how the extra support they need will be provided and by whom.
If your child is struggling at school and they need more support than they’re currently getting, you can call the National Autistic Society’s Educational Rights Helpline for advice about what to do next.
Your local authority should provide an overview of the support available in your area for children, young people and adults with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
If you are worried that your child is at immediate risk of harm, or is not safe, call 999 or take them to A&E. Some parents tell us that taking their child to A&E in this situation can feel strange. Remember that this is the right thing to do. The NHS is very clear that a mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as a physical one – and that you will not be wasting anyone’s time.
You can also contact your local NHS urgent mental health helpline (England only) or 111 for 24-hour advice and support.
Trust your instincts. You know your child best and if your gut is telling you something is there, don't be afraid to push for further investigation and support.
Looking after yourself
Supporting a young person who is struggling can be really hard. It’s important to recognise the impact the situation is having on you, and to think about ways you can take care of yourself – including by getting support from other people so that you can take some time off.
Remember that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it, and to share your worries with someone you trust. If you need more help, you can find support services for yourself by speaking to your GP or seeing a private counsellor or therapist.
Parents in this situation have found it helpful to connect with other parents going through similar things. You could do this by:
Connecting with your child and looking after yourself so that you can stay regulated and hold the distress and big emotions of your child is the most impactful thing you can do.
Talk to other parents and carers and join support groups – parents and carers whose children have been in similar situations are an enormous source of support and knowledge.
Where to get further support
Useful helplines and websites
Text YM to 85258
Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.
All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.
Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
- Opening times:
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
- Opening times:
- 9am - midnight, 365 days a year