Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are recognized by difficulties with communication, social-interactions, and a habit of repetitive behaviors. Symptoms for young children may include difficulty responding to their name being called, decreased eye contact, less interest in other people that would be expected, difficulty establishing relationships with peers, difficulty playing interactive games with others, and delayed speech or speech that does not seem appropriate for a child’s age level. As children develop, social interactions and daily demands become more complex. Because of these increased challenges, the gap between a child with ASD and their peers may seem to widen as they get older, and symptoms of ASD may appear to get worse. This is a common concern for parents, especially as their child approaches puberty and it becomes difficult to navigate the complicated social world and the complexity of academic life.
The years before and during puberty can be a challenging time for anyone, and youth with ASD are at particular risk for developing anxiety and depression around this time. These symptoms are common, especially as children get older. Some signs of depression might include include increased desire to be alone, no longer enjoying things that were previously enjoyable, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or other significant changes in behavior. Symptoms of anxiety may include increased avoidance of certain situations, inflexibility, physical signs (e.g., stomach aches, headaches), increased focus on certain topics or fears, increase in repetitive behaviors, or even emotional reactions (tantrums, aggression). Various behavioral treatments (therapy) can be very successful in improving symptoms related to anxiety and depression. Often, other symptoms related to ASD, including social interaction, also seem to improve when anxiety and depression improve.
Symptoms vary in severity for each individual with ASD, making each person with ASD truly unique. Various challenges associated with having an ASD can impact multiple aspects of life. Therapy can target areas that are most important for each individual, with the goal of strengthening skills, reducing symptoms known to cause increased stress and challenges (e.g., anxiety and loneliness), and ultimately improving overall quality of life.