A mother and her young son look at each other near a window

Autism and mental health

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

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.

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.

Different experiences of autism

It can be helpful to know that autism can present differently in girls - and that some autistic girls mask or camouflage their autistic traits more than boys do. Teachers at school may also be less likely to report autistic traits in girls. This means autism can sometimes be missed and a diagnosis may not be given until later in life.

Some parents have also found that professionals can miss or misdiagnose autistic traits in Black and Minoritised children because they make assumptions about their behaviour, language ability and cultural background. Professionals may not be able to offer culturally specific support, which can also create barriers around getting a diagnosis and accessing help. As with girls, this may sometimes lead to later diagnoses and missed opportunities for support.

It’s important to understand that autism looks different for different people. Autistic children and young people come from all backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures – and can be of any gender or identity.

Autism and mental health

A father and son laughing and looking happy together by a wall

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. 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.

However, alongside their life experiences, autistic people may face some additional stressors. These can include:

  • finding day-to-day life, routines and social interactions more tiring
  • feeling particularly overwhelmed or anxious about change
  • finding it difficult to make sense of or express their feelings, or experiencing challenges around language and communication
  • feeling worried about social situations, including feeling a pressure to ‘fit in’ or that they don’t ‘fit in’
  • finding relationships difficult to navigate, or feeling unsure about how to make connections with others

This can mean that some autistic people are at greater risk of experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. If your child is struggling at the moment, you might feel like you don't know how to help. But remember there are things you can do to support them and make things better. On this page we've got advice to help you.

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.
Jo, parent

How to talk to your child about mental health

If you’re concerned that your child is struggling, try to open up a conversation about what’s going on. Here are some strategies that can help them open up and feel more relaxed:

  • 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.

How to support your child's wellbeing

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.
Jo, parent

This can be particularly helpful if they are feeling worried about social situations or struggling to make friends. You may be able to find a group by joining one of the National Autistic Society’s local branches, or searching their directory for other local services.

National Autistic Society - local branches

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.
Kerry, parent

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.
Jo, parent

Getting an assessment or diagnosis for autism

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.

Read more about autism assessments on the NHS website

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
Getting support from the GP
A child laughing with her head in her mum's lap.

You can also get help from:

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.

Counselling and therapy

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.

More information on help available at school

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).

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.
Jo, parent

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.
    Jo, parent
  • 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.
    Kerry, parent

Useful helplines and websites

While we take care to ensure that the organisations we signpost to provide high quality information and advice, we cannot take responsibility for any specific pieces of advice they may offer. We encourage parents and carers to always explore the website of a linked service or organisation to understand who they are and what support they offer before engaging with them.

  • National Autistic Society

    Supports autistic people and their families. You can find lots of information and advice about autism on their website. They also have a network of local branches. These can provide things like parent courses and family support, social meet-ups and support groups for autistic young people.

    They have an inpatient care support service, which provides advice to autistic people and the families of autistic people who are in a mental health hospital.

  • Contact

    Provides support, information and advice for families with children with disabilities or other conditions including ADHD. Also runs family workshops and activities.

    Free online chat service available. 

    Opening times:
    9:30am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline

    We support parents and carers who are concerned about their child or young person's mental health. Our Parents Helpline provides detailed advice and information, emotional support and signposting.

    You can speak to us over the phone or chat to us online.

    You can speak to us over webchat between 9.30am and 4pm from Monday-Friday. When we’re closed, you can still leave us a message in the chat. We’ll reply to you by email in 3-5 working days.

    Opening times:
    9.30am-4pm, Monday-Friday
  • PDA Society

    Online information and advice about Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), including tips for parents around managing family life.

  • YoungSibs

    UK-wide online support service for siblings under 18 who have a brother or sister who is disabled or has special educational needs or a serious long-term condition including ADHD. 

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This page was reviewed in July 2021.

It was created with parents and carers with lived experience of supporting their autistic child or young person.

We will next review the page in 2024.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.

Whether you love the page or think something is missing, we appreciate your feedback. It all helps us to support more young people with their mental health.

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