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Behavioral Strategies for Autistic Students with Depression

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

As a teacher who works with students who have autism, you may have some students who are prone to depression. This lesson offers ideas for behavioral strategies you can use to help your students.

Autism and Depression

Emily is a middle school teacher who works in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In the past, she has also supported students with autism in inclusive educational settings.

Over the course of her career, Emily has learned that autism can also be comorbid with other diagnoses, meaning that a student with autism can additionally be diagnosed with other challenges or conditions. One thing that students with autism may struggle with is depression.

Depression varies tremendously from one individual to the next. Children who have autism and severe depression can be very difficult to communicate with and might require treatment beyond the parameters of the school. Children with milder depression might benefit tremendously from behavioral interventions, or strategies that function on the level of their behavior in and outside of school.

Identifying and Stopping Thoughts

Emily has learned that one of the basic strategies used by many behavioral therapists, called thought-stopping, can also be very helpful for her students with autism. This is particularly helpful when depression expresses itself as anxiety or compulsions, which is not uncommon for students with autism.

Emily teaches her students to identify the thoughts that are most associated with depressed feelings for them. For instance, maybe when they think about having to say goodbye to their families, they start to feel anxious or sad. Perhaps anxiety starts to incur when they are about to go out to recess, and they cannot stop thinking about the difficult social encounters they may face.

Once students can identify their difficult thoughts, Emily teaches them to say something internally that will help calm or redirect the difficult feelings. For instance, she might teach students to envision something they love to do or to repeat a word in their mind. This can be very meditative and soothing for autistic students with depression.

Sticking to Routines

Emily also knows that routines are very important to all students with autism. This is even more true when the students also have depression. Two of the aspects of life most frequently associated with depression are sleeping and eating. Excess or limited sleep and food can be both a symptom of depression and something that exacerbates it.

Therefore, Emily works with families to make sure that students adhere to a consistent routine around mealtimes, bed times, and, if relevant, snack and nap times. She finds that getting these routines in place can go a long way toward alleviating depression in students on the spectrum.

Social Skill Development

Another thing that can really exacerbate depression in students with autism is a sense of isolation that can be a natural outgrowth of their sometimes-faltering social skills. Emily notices that many of her students struggle with depression as an outgrowth of their loneliness and lack of connection with the people in the world around them.

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