Julie Mower M.A. Ed. is the Executive Director of The Phoenix Center in Nutley, New Jersey, and an expert in special education, community-based instruction, and transition planning. She is dedicated to empowering students with multiple disabilities and transforming the landscape of special education through innovative programs and advocacy
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s important to remember that mental health challenges can affect anyone, including those in the neurodiverse community. Unfortunately, many people still believe harmful myths about mental health and neurodiversity. These misconceptions can prevent individuals from finding the help they need, and they can also make it more difficult for families and educators to support neurodiverse children. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common myths about mental health issues and neurodiversity, and provide evidence to debunk them.
One of the most pervasive myths about neurodiversity is that therapeutic interventions are not necessary for individuals on the autism spectrum or with multiple disabilities. This is simply not true. In fact, research has shown that therapy can be incredibly beneficial for these individuals, including those who are nonverbal. (1)
In fact, studies have shown that individuals on the autism spectrum are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general population. (2) This means that therapeutic interventions can be even more important for these individuals, as it can help them to manage their mental health and improve their overall quality of life.
Another common myth about neurodiversity is that certain behaviors associated with neurodiverse conditions, such as autism or ADHD, are not indicative of mental health issues. However, this is simply not true. Behaviors that are often attributed to neurodiversity may actually be signs of a mental health crisis.
For example, self-injurious behavior is often associated with autism. While it’s true that some individuals with autism engage in self-injurious behavior, it’s important to recognize that this behavior can also be a sign of a mental health issue. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that self-injurious behavior was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression in individuals with autism.(3)
Similarly, individuals with ADHD may exhibit hyperactive or impulsive behaviors that are often attributed to their diagnosis. However, these behaviors can also be signs of a mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression. It’s important to recognize that neurodiverse individuals are just as likely to experience mental health issues as anyone else.
Finally, there is a pervasive myth that neurodiverse individuals do not experience mental health crises. This myth is particularly harmful, as it can prevent families and educators from recognizing when an individual needs urgent psychiatric treatment.
Undiagnosed mental health challenges in neurodiverse individuals can delay or interfere with accessing the proper medical or psychiatric treatment needed for a better quality of life.
Breaking down these myths about mental health and neurodiversity is crucial in helping neurodiverse individuals to receive the care and support they need. Some therapeutic interventions that can be helpful in addressing their challenges are talk therapy, play therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation and relaxation training.
By bringing awareness to the importance of therapeutic interventions, and , understanding and acknowledging the signs of mental health issues/crises , the hope is that there will be more opportunities for neurodiverse individuals to better access the care they need.
(1) Burrell et al. (2020). Effectiveness of Parent-Mediated Interventions for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
(2) Mazurek et al. (2019). Anxiety and Depression in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comprehensive Review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review
(3) Matson, J. L., & Nebel-Schwalm, M. S. (2007). Assessing challenging behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders: A review. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 28(6), 567-579.