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Mood Disorders and Asperger Syndrome

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Updated February 04, 2014

The diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome (AS) do not include mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder. But many people with AS are overwhelmed by these mood disorders - even more than by the symptoms of AS itself.

If so many people with AS suffer with mood disorders, the big question is - why?

A reasonable explanation might be that the life experiences of people with AS lead to depression and anxiety. People with AS cope every day with sensory overloads, social rejection, teasing, bullying, and a whole host of other issues which are, by anyone's estimation, depressing and anxiety producing.

No Easy Answers

And indeed, Asperger experts Dr. Tony Attwood and Dr. Judy Reaven agree that Asperger syndrome can create a more stressful life, leading to mood disorders. But there's more to it.

According to Dr. Attwood, one of the world's experts on Asperger syndrome, perception and regulation of emotions really is a central element of AS. In addition, he says, "We now have neurophysiological evidence that the amygdala [a part of the brain] is different - and it's involved with regulation of emotions....[In Asperger syndrome] genetics and physiology come together; 2 of 3 teens with AS have a secondary mood disorder - anxiety, depression, and/or anger."

Dr. Judith Reaven of the University of Colorado at Denver Health Sciences Center confirms that children with autism spectrum disorders in general are at high risk for developing anxiety disorders. "Clinicians and researchers believe that we are looking at not just cases of increased stress, but true anxiety symptoms and disorders in this population," she says. "This is a new field without a lot of good data yet, but there is evidence to suggest that these anxiety symptoms and disorders are not just related to having autism or just because the individuals with autism spectrum disorders are vulnerable to bullying, teasing, etc., but these symptoms develop much in the same way anxiety develops in the general population — as a result of environmental, biological factors. We believe this to be true because some of the anxiety symptoms we see are very clear examples of specific fears and phobias, or classic OCD symptoms, or generalized anxiety symptoms, that we feel can’t be explained by increased stress alone."

Resources:

Interview with Dr. Anthony Attwood, researcher, author, and Associate Professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. May, 2007.

Interview with Dr. Judith Reaven, Director of the Autism and Developmental Disorders Clinic, JFK Partners, University of Colorado at Denver Health Sciences Center. May, 2007.

Juranek J, Filipek PA, Berenji GR, Modahl C, Osann K, Spence MA. Association between amygdala volume and anxiety level: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study in autistic children.J Child Neurol. 2006 Dec;21(12):1051-8.

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