Autism & Bipolar Link? - Hidden Talents ABA

Are Autism and Bipolar Disorder Related?

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October 10, 2021 Are Autism and Bipolar Disorder Related?

Autism is a developmental disability. It’s characterized by relationship, social, communication, and behavioral challenges. The disorder is a spectrum condition, meaning it affects you differently and with varying degrees. Autism spectrum disorder appears during early childhood and does not fall in the medical conditions category. 

There is nothing significant that sets you apart from the rest if you're autistic. The only difference is that you learn, think and solve problems differently. Let's start by understanding bipolar disorder to know how it compares to autism.

What is autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior. It's known as a "spectrum" disorder because people with autism can have a range of symptoms, with varying degrees of severity.

Symptoms of autism often appear by age two. These may include difficulty with social interactions and communication, repetitive behaviors, strong focus on particular interests, and sensitivity to sensory input1. However, every individual with autism is unique, and the manifestation of these symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.

There are several key areas where individuals with autism may struggle:

  1. Social Interaction: Individuals with autism often find it challenging to interact with others. This may manifest as difficulty understanding nonverbal cues, maintaining eye contact, or forming friendships.
  2. Communication: Individuals with autism may have delayed speech development, may repeat phrases or words (echolalia), or may not speak at all. Some might have a good command of language but struggle with conversational skills.
  3. Repetitive Behaviors and Routines: People with autism often exhibit repetitive behaviors, which can include hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, or repeating certain sounds or words. They may also insist on rigid routines and become upset if these routines are disturbed.
  4. Sensory Sensitivity: Many individuals with autism are hyper-sensitive to sensory input such as light, sound, touch, taste, or smell. Some may be under-sensitive and seek out sensory stimulation.

The exact cause of autism is unknown, but it's believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There's no cure for autism, but early intervention using behavioral, educational, and family therapies can help children develop skills and achieve their potential.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes regular mood swings. The mood disorder swings from either high (mania or hypomania) or low (depression). It's known to affect your energy, sleep, thinking, behavior, and other day-to-day tasks. Here are the three common types of bipolar disorders:

Bipolar I Disorder

You know you have this variant when you start experiencing manic episodes that last for at least one week. Sometimes, the episodes become so severe that you need emergency medical care. You may also experience depressive episodes that last for two weeks. Bipolar I disorder is characterized by:

  • Heightened mood 
  • Exaggerated optimism
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Excessive irritability or aggressive behavior
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Racing speech or thoughts
  • Impulsiveness or poor judgment
  • Reckless behavior

In more severe cases, you may experience psychosis involving delusions and hallucinations.

Bipolar II Disorder

Unlike bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder is characterized by depressive episodes. However, the episodes are not as extreme as those in bipolar I. Symptoms of bipolar II include:

  • Low mood
  • Extended sadness, even crying unexpectedly at certain times
  • Major effects in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Anxiety and anger issues
  • Reduced energy 
  • Feelings of guilt and unworthiness 
  • Reduced or zero concentration 
  • Regular suicidal thoughts
  • Psychosis in extreme cases

Cyclothymic Disorder 

Manic and depressive behavior episodes characterize this bipolar variant. However, it's less intense than the other two types mentioned above. The behaviors can last up to two years in adults and one year in children. 

Note that you can escalate bipolar episodes if you misuse drugs and alcohol. As a result, you may suffer from a condition known as "dual diagnosis." Dual diagnosis requires a specialist to tackle both problems.

Next, let’s look at how bipolar disorder and autism relate to each other.

Are Autism Spectrum Disorder and Bipolar Disorder Related?

Bipolar disorder may manifest in people with autism during early childhood development. According to a 2008 study, 27 percent of people with autism show bipolar symptoms too. Scientists also suggest that 4% of the general population with bipolar disorder may be over-diagnosed. This is because it's hard for people with autism to relate feelings properly. 

The probability of developing both conditions is not yet clear. It's also unclear what factors or triggers lead to high chances of suffering from autism or bipolar disorders. 

But in some cases, these conditions are genetic. So if you have a close family member with autism, you have a higher chance of developing it. The same applies to bipolar disorder or depression. 

Some experts say that autism and bipolar disorder activate specific genes in astrocytes. Astrocytes are star-shaped brain cells that are important components of the central nervous system (CNS). Sometimes, it's hard to differentiate between autism and bipolar disorder because their symptoms are similar. 

Read on to find out how their symptoms overlap each other.

Overlapping Symptoms of Autism and Bipolar Disorder

Studies show that a huge percentage of individuals with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed with autism and vice versa. This is because the two conditions share similar symptoms. Therefore, it can be hard for doctors to tell the difference.

To establish whether you have autism, bipolar, or a combination of both conditions, the psychiatrist assesses how often the symptoms occur. They also assess how long the symptoms occur and the severity.

For instance, it's normal for you to talk too much or lose focus easily if you have autism. But when you suddenly start experiencing high energy episodes, acting inappropriately, and going for days without sleep, you likely have bipolar I disorder. 

Research by the National Library of Medicine suggests that young adults diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and autism have higher chances of:

  • Experiencing mood symptoms earlier
  • Being easily distracted 
  • Developing racing thoughts
  • Being socially withdrawn 

Due to the overlapping symptoms in both conditions, a doctor may mistakenly diagnose you with autism instead of bipolar disorder, and vice versa. Below are some of the similarities in behavioral differences of the two conditions:

  • Being prone to accidents 
  • Difficulty in organizing thoughts 
  • Excessive talking
  • Easily distracted
  • Getting in trouble or doing risky things
  • Mood swings (either elevated or depressing)
  • Extreme irritability
  • Hostility behaviors
  • Tendency of repeating certain activities or behaviors
  • Sleeplessness 

Psychiatrists may find it hard to diagnose mental health problems in autistic individuals. This is especially true if they have significant levels of impaired communication and intellectual abilities. Currently, there is no treatment for autism. However, there are bipolar treatments that have proven to be a success in the past. 

If you're suffering from both conditions, you should be careful when taking mood stabilizing medications. This is because they react differently with different individuals. For example, antidepressants may worsen bipolar disorder symptoms. 

Treatment for Bipolar and Autism

Recent advances in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and bipolar disorder suggest promising developments.

For ASD, researchers have found potential treatments. One study suggests that an epilepsy drug could potentially 'switch off' autism. The medicine, priced at $3, is believed to be the first possible cure for autism spectrum disorder symptoms. Another study identified a potential new treatment method for Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), which is a leading cause of autism spectrum disorders. Furthermore, a neuroscience study revealed that a drug blocking sodium channels managed to curb autism-associated behaviors such as hyperactivity in mice. In another study, lamotrigine, a medication used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder symptoms, reversed autism-like behaviors in mice.

In terms of bipolar disorder, recent research has shed new light on the genetic architecture of this psychiatric condition. This research could potentially lead to more targeted and effective treatments. Moreover, a review focused on the clinical presentation of mood episodes in individuals with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) provides an update on the pharmacotherapy of bipolar disorder in adults with HFA.

In addition to these potential treatments, researchers are also exploring new targeted approaches in autism management. These include medications like metformin, arbaclofen, cannabidiol, oxytocin, bumetanide, and lovastatin.

Despite these promising findings, it's important to note that more research is needed before these treatments can be widely implemented. The complexity of both ASD and bipolar disorder necessitates a comprehensive and individualized approach to treatment.

It's highly recommended that you combine both behavioral interventions and medical treatments for optimal results. Behavioral management involves the following practices:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: It helps understand your thoughts and emotions to know how they relate to your actions.
  • Family Therapy: It focuses on your family members to help them learn how to support you.
  • Education: It helps decrease depression symptoms and ease uncertainty.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis: It aims to encourage positive behavior and reduce negative ones.

Get Help From the Right Physician

Autism and bipolar disorder share the same symptoms. It's therefore hard to diagnose them when the two conditions co-occur. Managing them involves a series of medications and behavioral interventions. This is why you need an experienced physician to treat your condition.