Can Teens and Young Adults Have Both Autism and Bipolar Disorder?

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Bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder are both conditions that affect people’s moods and mental health. Just like other psychiatric disorders, studies indicate that bipolar disorder may be relatively common among children and adults with autism. According to research, as many as 27% of people with autism also exhibit bipolar disorder illness symptoms. In contrast, it affects about 4% of the population as a whole.

Bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder have a number of similar symptoms and behaviours. For this reason, it is common for someone with autism to be misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Often differentiating the two can be difficult and diagnosis is not always clear-cut.

Bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder can be present in people of all ages; however, as people who have autism are at a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder, both conditions’ symptoms are more commonly seen in teens and young adults.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that affects your mood. People with bipolar will experience extreme fluctuations in their moods, swinging between feelings of an elevated or depressed mood. Often young people with bipolar disorder may be diagnosed with clinical depression before they are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Mood swings associated with bipolar disorder – typically known as episodes – can last a few weeks at a time but can last longer, even a few months.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder can generally be divided into two categories; depressive episodes and manic episodes. The typical symptoms of depressive states include:

  • Feeling sad, empty, down, hopeless or tearful in young adults and in teens, depressed moods are often expressed through irritability.
  • Showing a lack of motivation and interest in activities that were once enjoyable.
  • Significant weight loss, weight gain, or extreme changes in appetite.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Extreme loss of energy.
  • Feeling a lack of self-worth.
  • Inability to think or concentrate or experiencing indecisiveness.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Agitated or restless behaviour.

Typical symptoms of manic episodes may show similarities to the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), they include:

  • Unusually upbeat, jumpy or full of energy
  • Feeling restless or agitated
  • Feeling overconfident
  • Sleeping less often than usual
  • Excessive talkativeness
  • Continuous racing thoughts
  • Getting distracted easily
  • Engaging in dangerous or risky activities

If you or someone you know is experiencing a few or more of the symptoms listed above, you should seek advice from a trained medical professional who will be able to provide a detailed diagnosis.

Treating Bipolar Disorder

There are several methods that can be used to treat bipolar disorder. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, different treatment options will be made available, and these can be in the form of behavioural therapy or medication. Treatments for young adults and teenagers are typically chosen on an individual basis, depending on the symptoms, drug side effects, and other circumstances. Typically, treatment entails:

  • Medication – typically these will be mood stabilizing medications similar to what may be prescribed for things such as anxiety disorder.
  • Psychotherapy – initial and ongoing therapy can aid in preventing the recurrence of symptoms. Psychotherapy can assist young adults and teenagers with routine management, coping skill development, learning disabilities, social issues, and family communication.
  • Psychoeducation – learning about the signs of bipolar disorder and how they differ from behaviours connected to developmental stages, circumstances, and acceptable cultural behaviour can all be part of psychoeducation.
  • Support – working with healthcare professionals and close members of friends and family can provide help in challenging times.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorders will affect teens and young adults in different ways compared to autistic adults but may not be as noticeable in comparison to autistic children. ASD is a developmental impairment brought on by variations in the brain. People with ASD may struggle with confined or repetitive activities or interests, as well as social communication and engagement. Young adults and teenagers with ASD may experience a range of symptoms associated with their condition. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Difficulty engaging in conversations. 
  • Talk excessively about a lot of their favourite topics, but find it challenging to discuss a range of topics.
  • Easily confused by language and take a lot of things literally.
  • Unusual speech patterns.
  • Possessing extensive vocabulary and speaking in a formal fashion.
  • Difficulty in following instructions with more than one or two steps.
  • Choosing to spend time on their own.
  • Difficulty understanding social norms.
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships.
  • Trouble relating to other people or understanding other points of view.
  • Struggle to fit into social situations.

If you notice any of these particular symptoms in either yourself or someone you know, you should seek advice from a mental healthcare practitioner. Further information and guidance can be found via the National Institute of Mental Health.

Treating Autism

Typically autism is more complex to treat than bipolar disorder for young adults and teenagers. Although autism can not be cured, the symptoms can be controlled and maintained through various treatment options. After an autism diagnosis, treatment options will be discussed. These could include:

  • Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)
  • Early intervention can be supplied at the early stages of diagnosis
  • Educational and school-based therapies
  • Medication  
  • Nutritional advice to help reduce adverse effects of stimulants 
  • Occupational therapy 
  • Behavioural management therapy

Most young adults and teenagers with suspected autism will be given extensive assessments before being prescribed appropriate treatment methods.

The Link Between Autism Spectrum Disorder and Bipolar Disorder

There is strong research to suggest bipolar disorder and autism are affected by genetics, with heritability estimates being at least 80% for each. As individual conditions, ASD and bipolar disorder share many similar attributes; however, the symptoms of comorbid bipolar disorder and autism are different than if either condition appeared by itself. Studies show that 30% of people with autism also have symptoms of bipolar disorder. The same study also indicated that bipolar disorder was more likely to manifest earlier in people with autism than in people without.

Both disorders also appear to turn on certain genes in astrocytes, which are star-shaped brain cells that play a key role in the central nervous system. The genes that support healthy synapses, the connectors between nerve cells, appear to be suppressed in both conditions.

Supporting Someone with Bipolar Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder

It is important to be able to provide someone with autism and bipolar disorder with as much support as possible. To be able to do this it is highly advised to gather as much information surrounding the conditions as you can so that you can have an in-depth understanding of autistic and bipolar behaviour, especially in young adults and teenagers. Further tips for support also include:

  • Remaining mindful of your own behaviour  
  • Praising positive behaviour and encouraging this as much as possible
  • Actively encouraging communication and listening to what is being said
  • Establishing firm routines that may help with coping with daily life
  • Seeking help and guidance from medical professionals 

Receiving an autism and bipolar disorder diagnosis can be challenging. Gaining as much knowledge as possible will be highly beneficial for helping a loved one through a dual diagnosis. 

Contact Us

At the Wave Clinic, we understand the challenges that young adults and teenagers face when living with mental health conditions like autism spectrum disorder and bipolar disorder. We combine comprehensive care with evidence-based treatment options and expert medical care, and all treatment programmes are fully personalised. Contact us today to find out more. 

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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