Why are there higher rates of depression in those with AS? There may be some genetic predisposition to depression for some, but this doesn’t explain most cases of depression. One reason for depression is isolation and loneliness. Despite the misconception that people with AS prefer being alone, research shows that many with AS want friends. Children and teens with AS are often lonely and feel their friendships aren’t “quality.” They’re looking for company, safety and acceptance to give them a sense of confidence. Those who have friends may have a lower tendency towards depression. However, many with AS who experience social anxiety or lack social skills in joining, starting, and maintaining friendships don’t have the tools to have the friends they want.
Another reason for depression is the experience of being bullied.
Studies have suggested that a majority of those with AS experience bullying. This isn’t surprising given the drive towards conformity and the emphasis on social status among middle school children in particular, but also among high school students and even older individuals.
There isn’t a cultural norm of tolerance of neurodiversity, or even of most kinds of diversity.
Qualities of those with AS that engender bullying are
- lack of awareness of social cues;
- cognitive rigidity;
- interests or behavior labeled ‘odd’;
- and hypersensitivity.
AS individuals have difficulty flexibily and astutely responding to bullies. Some with AS tend to be submissive and anxious in response, which empowers bullies to continue. Still others lash back, which gets them in trouble.
In my own practice, my Asperger’s teenagers and young adults have often been bullied and carry the wounds of bullying deeply ingrained in their sense of self-esteem.
These experiences often lead them to distrust others, and given their difficulty with social cues, to anticipate bullying even when it might not be there. Some have perceived others as bullying them even when peers might simply be engaging in the usual adolescent behavior, or may not even be talking about them. The Asperger’s individual withdraws anticipating further humiliation, behavior that can be read as aloofness.
This tendency to depression is particularly true for those with higher intelligence and capacity for self-reflection, who have an awareness of their social difficulties. They often internalize their negative experiences and feelings of loneliness into their sense of self and their outlook for the future.
Bullying is frequent in our society and our schools. Bullying students usually takes place in the no-man’s zone where there are no teachers such as the hall, gym, lunchroom and recess. Exclusion also counts as bullying.
Unfortunately, teachers who misunderstand the behavior of AS students can sometimes be bullies as well.
Young adults can be excluded and mocked in college and at work. A recent New York Times article suggested that a young man who had been recognized as probably on the spectrum in his office should be fired if his behavior was socially inappropriate and made others uncomfortable. Another article described how an AS student was asked to leave a public library because he made others uncomfortable.
Also, there’s the stress of the transition to adulthood. In later teenage and young adult years, those with Aspergers are under stress to make the transition to college, increasing independence, and to employment. They have to deal with the need to navigate the mainstream world and social, school, and work environments. In addition to social problems, many feel that they lack the adaptive skills as well as the executive functioning skills to “make it” on their own.
This is why early identification of the signs of Aspergers in children who are high functioning is so important. An early diagnosis gives early intervention to support skill development, handle anxiety, and hopefully to counter bullying. Adults also need to be identified: one researcher referred to undiagnosed adults as a “lost generation” because this is so common. Appropriate understanding and support is vital to helping those who are depressed, and in helping others avoid depression.
by Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.
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