The Connection Between Bipolar Disorder and Autism
When it comes to mental illness, sometimes making a diagnosis has to do more with degree than anything else. For example, you and I and everyone around us have good days and not-so-good days. Sometimes we feel bright and capable and full of energy. Other days we feel like we just meet the minimum requirements. Our mood and performance may wax and wane with the weather, our amount of sleep or even our activity level. But for people with bipolar disorder, these normal ranges of mood and behavior get extended into the zones of extreme.
Mania is one end of the emotional pole. During manic phases a person with bipolar disorder may practically burst with self-confidence, super-abundant energy and extreme talkativeness. The positive feelings are strong enough to tempt the person to feel invincible and may lead them into high risk behaviors like fast driving, over-spending or unprotected sex.
At the other end of the pole is extreme depression. This is not just having a down day or week. Bipolar disorder robs sufferers of practically every drop of hope or motivation. Getting up and out of bed is hard, bathing is a major chore and performing daily duties seems Herculean. And self-esteem which was soaring in mania, now sinks to the basement. It can sink so low that the person considers or even attempts suicide.
Autism is not a mood disorder, but it is often accompanied by various mood difficulties. Because the person with autism has trouble communication and connecting socially, they can easily become frustrated, anxious or depressed. There are also instances where a person with autism may become more talkative rather than silent.
It has been suggested that as many as 30 percent of children with bipolar may be dealing with concurrent symptoms of autism. It’s hard to be precise since there is significant symptom overlap between the two conditions.
This overlap could be due to shared biological foundations. In other words, similar genes may trigger both conditions. A 2012 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study reported that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were commonly found in families where someone had autism.
This creates a challenge for the professional seeking to make a proper diagnosis. One key to discerning the difference has to do with when and how the symptoms emerge. With bipolar the onset of mania can appear suddenly. It can also be triggered by interrupted sleep. Whereas the person with autism may become depressed through relational frustration, the one with bipolar disorder can’t usually point to a cause for depression.
Since two conditions with similar symptoms can appear together, which is called co-morbidity, it’s important for a mental health professional to perform a trained evaluation. It may be that one problem looks like another, or that two conditions are co-existing. Proper treatment will depend upon discerning the difference.