Researchers don’t yet understand why, but autistic people are at a higher risk of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is a common mood disorder. It’s known by its cycles of elevated moods followed by depressed moods. These cycles can happen over days, weeks, or even months.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) causes a variety of symptoms that include difficulties with social skills, speech, behavior, and communication. The term “spectrum” is used because a wide range of abilities can be found among autistic people. Each person’s signs and symptoms are different.
There’s some overlap between autistic people and people who have bipolar disorder. However, the precise number of people with both conditions is unknown.
That’s because bipolar disorder and autism share several common symptoms and behaviors. Some autistic people may be mistakenly diagnosed as bipolar when their symptoms are really the result of autistic behaviors.
Keep reading to learn how to recognize legitimate symptoms of bipolar disorder. This can help you understand if what you or a loved one may be experiencing is bipolar disorder or not.
A diagnosis may not be clear-cut, but you and a psychiatrist can work through your symptoms to determine if you have both bipolar disorder and autism.
Autistic people are more likely to exhibit signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder. They’re also more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder than the typical population. However, it’s not clear how many people have both conditions or why.
According to one 2008 study,
A large 2020 study looked at the rates of mood disorders in autistic people in Minnesota. The study participants were between 17 and 43 years old during the months that the data analysis took place. The researchers found that autistic people were
Researchers know that bipolar disorder may be linked to your genes. If you have a close family member who has either bipolar disorder or depression, you have a greater chance of developing the condition. The same is true for autism. Specific genes or gene errors may increase your chances of developing autism.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder fall into two categories. These categories are determined by the type of mood you’re experiencing.
Symptoms of a manic episode include:
- acting unusually happy, upbeat, and wired
- increased energy and agitation
- an exaggerated sense of self and inflated self-esteem
- sleep disturbances
- being easily distracted
Symptoms of a depressive episode include:
- acting or feeling down or depressed, sad, or hopeless
- loss of interest in normal activities
- sudden and dramatic changes in appetite
- unexpected weight loss or weight gain
- fatigue, loss of energy, and frequent sleeping
- an inability to focus or concentrate
The severity of autism symptoms differs from person to person. Symptoms of autism include:
- difficulty with social interaction and communication
- practicing repetitive behaviors that aren’t easy to disturb
- displaying very specific preferences or practices that aren’t easily changed
If you think you or a loved one may have both bipolar disorder and autism, it’s important to understand how the conditions appear together. The symptoms of comorbid bipolar disorder and autism are different than if either condition appeared by itself.
Depression is often obvious and easy to identify, while mania is less clear. That’s why recognizing mania in an autistic person can be difficult.
If the behaviors have been a constant since symptoms associated with autism appeared, they’re unlikely to be the result of mania. However, if you noticed a sudden shift or change, these behaviors may be the result of mania.
Once you’ve identified when the symptoms appeared, look for the seven key signs of mania. They include speaking quickly and impulsivity.
If you think your symptoms or those of a loved one are the result of bipolar disorder, see a psychiatrist. They can determine whether an acute medical issue is responsible for the symptoms.
If they rule out such a condition, they can refer you to another mental health specialist. While general practitioners are wonderful for many health issues, consulting with a psychiatrist or other mental health expert is best in this situation.
Make an appointment with one of these specialists to review your concerns. Together, you can work to find a diagnosis or an explanation for the symptoms you’re experiencing, whether that’s bipolar disorder or another condition.
Getting a diagnosis isn’t always a clear-cut process, especially if the autistic person has challenges with communication. A psychiatrist may have to use other means and observations to make a diagnosis.
Before a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is made, your psychiatrist may want to rule out other conditions. Several conditions often occur with autism, and many of them share symptoms with bipolar disorder.
These conditions include:
The goal of treatment for bipolar disorder is to stabilize moods and prevent broad shifts in mood. This can help stop manic or depressive episodes. With proper treatment, someone with bipolar disorder may be able to regulate their own behavior and mood more easily.
Typical treatment for bipolar disorder includes lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, and medications, such as antipsychotic drugs and mood stabilizers.
Some psychiatrists may also prescribe a family treatment intervention, especially with children. This combination of education and therapy may help improve behavior and decrease severe shifts in mood.
Antipsychotic drugs include risperidone (Risperdal) and aripiprazole (Abilify).
Lithium (Lithobid) is the most commonly prescribed mood stabilizer. It can cause significant side effects, including toxicity.
For people with communication difficulties, which is common for people on the autism spectrum, this is a serious concern. If they aren’t able to communicate about their side effects, the toxicity may not be discovered until too late.Therefore, this medication should be taken with close supervision by one’s caregivers and doctor.
Valproic acid is also an example of a mood stabilizer.
If other medications and interventions haven’t worked and the challenges are quite severe, autistic children may be prescribed one or more antipsychotic or mood-stabilizing medications.
However, there’s a significant risk of weight gain and diabetes with some antipsychotic drugs. Psychiatrists must closely monitor children who take these medications.
If you’re a parent of a child who has bipolar disorder and is also on the autism spectrum, know that you aren’t alone. Many parents have the same questions and concerns as you. Finding them and developing a community of support may be helpful for you as you learn to navigate the changes that come with your loved one’s condition.
Ask your psychiatrist or your hospital about local support groups. You can also use websites such as the Autism Support Network to find people in a similar situation.
Likewise, if you’re an adolescent or adult dealing with this combination of conditions, finding support can also help you learn to manage them. A psychologist or mental health expert is a wonderful resource for one-on-one therapy. You can ask about group therapy options as well.
Asking for help from people who know what it’s like to be in your shoes can go a long way toward helping you feel capable of handling the challenges you face. Because you’ll know you’re not alone, you may feel more empowered and capable.