Wellington-based Martyn Matthews has published a six-year study of the mental health of adults with autism for his PhD from Otago University.
In it he found that 26 per cent of adults with autism were experiencing depression and that 39 per cent of those with autism plus an intellectual disability and 60 per cent of those with autism only, were taking anti-depressant medications.
“Adults with autism are four times more likely to experience depression than other people,” said Matthews who is national clinical practice leader at IDEA Services, part of IHC New Zealand.
His role involves management of specialist services for children with autism and he was a contributor to the New Zealand version of the Growing up with Autism programme.
He has worked with people with autism for nearly 30 years and is a member of the New Zealand Association for Intellectual Disability council.
In an article published in the latest edition of the Altogether Autism Journal , published by Altogether Autism, Matthews said there was a “significant amount of research indicating that adults with autism experience increased rates of mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression”.
That means they come into frequent contact with psychiatric services where their autism is not well understood.
“Over the years I have been working with adults and children with autism, I’ve tried to understand their thoughts and feelings and how these affect their daily lives.”
A number of adults with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism characterised by social and communication problems, talked to Matthews about the difficulties they experienced coping with the demands of everyday life.
“They spoke of not being able to access help when they needed it and that when they did access psychiatric services, these services struggled to take account of their autism.”
Seeking information about mental health problems from those with autism is often ineffective because of the communication difficulties.
Completing a psychiatric screening tool using carer reports and clinical observations can be more successful.
“The combination of atypical presentation of depression in adults with autism and the difficulties which people with autism face in describing their thoughts and feelings, highlights a need for different assessment approaches,” said Matthews.
His doctorate concludes that using psychiatric screening tools can also be of benefit to service providers so they can understand the mental health needs of adults with autism.
The September edition of Altogether Autism also features an article by clinical psychologist Jenny Gibbs on how to separate out what behaviours or challenges are autism and what is a mood or behaviour disorder.