A guide for young people Autism and mental health

Autism is not a mental health problem. It's a developmental condition that affects how you see the world and how you interact with other people. Find out more about autism, how it can affect your mental health, and where to get support if you need it.

What is autism?

A group of three young people laugh and chat while sitting on the ground beside a tree in the park.

Autism is not a mental health problem. It's a developmental condition that affects how you see the world and how you interact with other people.

Just like anyone else, autistic people can have good mental health. However, people with autism do often experience mental health problems. According to Autistica, seven out of ten autistic people have a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression or OCD.

You might have heard the phrase ‘on the autism spectrum’, or ‘autistic spectrum’. Autism is a spectrum condition, which means it affects people in very different ways. However, there are certain traits that most autistic people experience to some extent.

Common traits autistic people experience

Some common traits many autistic people experience include:

  • difficulty recognising or understanding other people's emotions 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 things
  • difficulties reading body language, understanding sarcasm and facial expressions

All of these traits can be experienced to lesser or greater degrees. Experiencing one or more of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean you are autistic. But if these kinds of things are consistently present and are impacting upon your life, you may consider talking to your GP to discuss how you can seek a formal diagnosis.

How to get an autism diagnosis
  • I prefer to say I am autistic, rather than that I “have” autism, because autism isn’t an illness that you “have” - It is a part of who I am.
  • As part of my autism, I tend to take things very literally.
  • For those on the spectrum anxious about the future, I want to instill a sense of belief that I know many of us lack. The truth is every day we overcome our condition in so many different ways.

Looking after your mental health

If you are on the autistic spectrum, just the same as any young person, it is important to seek specialist help when you feel like you need it. But it's also important to take good care of yourself. We recommend regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep and talking things through with people you know and trust.

You might find unexpected changes very stressful, so trying to keep daily routines as predictable as possible and this will help you to reduce anxiety.

Find out more about autism
With the right support, autistic people can recover from mental health problems, but it’s vital that there are specialist services in place to support us.

Supporting a friend

If you are worried about an autistic friend’s mental wellbeing, it is important to talk to them, and encourage them to look after themselves and seek specialist help if needed.

Autistic young people might find it harder to communicate how they feel, so here are some tips that can help you to have a positive conversation:

Background noise, fluorescent lighting – even the sound of you stirring your tea – can be really distracting and make a difficult conversation much harder.

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?

It can be helpful to ask your friend how they prefer to communicate. Some people may prefer to text, or write something down, or to have time in advance to think about their answers. 

An autistic person may take 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 – silences can feel awkward! Instead, give your friend plenty of time to respond, and be OK with the silence.

Real stories from autistic young people

Two young people lean against a bus stop. The person on the left is laughing and wears a black coat while looking at the other young person. The person on the right wears a dark blue jacket and is looking at the person on the left. They're side on to the camera.
Being diagnosed has helped me understand who I am and how I see things and begun to help me value the person I am rather than trying to be someone I am not.
Part of the reason my autism was missed for so long was because I put a lot of effort into masking my difficulties, which was exhausting.

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Where to get help

If you are autistic, or think you might be, and you're struggling with your mental health, here are some services that can really help.