How do you know when your child with autism has a mental health disorder?

Posted on 03/15/19 10:34:am Treating mental health in kids with ASD


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Like all kids, those on the autism spectrum display a wide variety of behaviors and emotions. It can be tricky to know what’s normal and what needs to be addressed.

According to Dr. Josh Nadeau, clinical director for Rogers’ Tampa location, parents need to trust their gut and observations. “You know your child best, and if you notice they are acting out negatively in a way they normally don’t, it’s always a red flag.”

Dr. Nadeau started a unique program at Rogers in Tampa that addresses mental health issues in children and teens with ASD. He recommends that when behavior repeatedly seems out of the ordinary for a child, it’s appropriate to start with a visit to the pediatrician or a specialist. A pediatrician sees a wide range of kids, and can often more easily identify what is out of the ordinary.

Dr. Nadeau cautions that it’s important to differentiate between irritability and being scared or nervous. “Irritability is a hallmark of ASD, but if a child is truly afraid or extremely nervous, there is likely something else going on. Rigidity is also typical of ASD, but if a small change in routine raises fear and really throws the child off, it may be anxiety driving the behavior,” he explains.

Signs of a mental health disorder and changes to watch for

  • Acting out with physical violence if that isn’t their typical response
  • Showing extreme anxiety (crying, shaking, screaming, running away) over minor changes in routine
  • Continually asking for reassurance about perceived dangers
  • Loss of enjoyment in activities that were previously satisfying
  • Pronounced fear or avoidance of social situations
  • Obsession with contamination, germs, or other perceived threat
  • Ritualistic activities such as repeated handwashing

Next steps

If there is concern that a child may need more support, the pediatrician may refer to a developmental pediatrician, who can oversee testing for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Depending upon the circumstances and whether the child is already known to have ASD, the pediatrician may instead refer directly to a psychiatrist or psychologist to assess for mental health concerns.

A unique program to treat mental health disorders in kids on the spectrum is offered by Rogers Behavioral Health on an outpatient basis in ChicagoMiamiSan Francisco, and Tampa. Kids and teens participate in cognitive behavioral therapy and related techniques, including exposure therapy and behavioral activation. Children between 6 and 18 with high functioning autism and at least one other disorder may qualify for the program, which last up to 6-1/2 hours a day, five days a week, for an average of six weeks. To learn more, visit our Anxiety and Depression Recovery in ASD Care page, call 800-767-4411, or request a free, confidential screening

Families see results from treatment

One Tennessee family was able to access the treatment in Tampa and found it not only gave their teenaged son greater understanding of his thoughts, feelings and behaviors, but it also introduced new parenting skills and approaches that have helped them know how best to interact with their son. 

“He’s very smart and aware of being different. He wants so desperately to be what he calls ‘normal.’ This treatment has been a life changing experience for him and really our whole family,” the mother shares.

Another mother says her son and family benefitted from the new program in the Chicago area, especially from working in a group setting.

“Over time he began to accept his ASD more as well as his anxiety and now knows he is not the only one. It’s hard because those things don’t go away and he is still coming to terms with that but he is more equipped to handle it. He is calmer, less aggressive, more self-aware—and much happier… The house is more relaxed and has a different feel to it,” she says.

The stats  

  • 1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder.

  • 70% of kids with ASD have at least one mental health disorder.

  • 41 to 50% have 2 or more conditions.

  • Anxiety affects about half those who have a mental health condition.

Call 800-767-4411 or go to to request a free screening.