Is Autism a Mental Illness?

On April 20th I posted a question on Facebook requesting the names of books where the main character was diagnosed with a mental health issue. I’m speaking on a mental health panel for UVU’s Book Academy in October and wanted to ensure that I was well versed in the more current literary examples. What surprised me was that after dozen of suggestions I was surprised by how many individuals considered autism spectrum disorders as classified as a mental illness.

As a mom of three kids on the autism spectrum it was my understanding that there was a line which divided the two, but after years of doctors, specialists, therapists, and more, I could no longer recall where the natural break was between the two. Beyond reading the suggested books given I chose to confirm whether my own beliefs were accurate or not. Granted, I plan to do more in-depth research over the following month and a half prior to moderating the panel, but this is what I have discovered so far:

My first search led me to the following in an article posted on Psychology Today:

“I guess my main point here is that if someone wants to label more extreme and less typical behavior as psychological or neurological or developmental (or as no disorder at all) then that’s their interpretation.  However, what is neither scientifically supported nor constructive is to parse out us versus them or you’re ill and I’m not groups that promote further division and stigma.  We need to appreciate fully how words like psychiatric, neurological, and developmental are really our own arbitrary creations that the human brain doesn’t recognize or respect.  From there, I wonder if it might be best just to leave terms like “mental illness” behind for everyone in favor of more encompassing labels that don’t carry the same history or baggage.  Maybe something like “complex brain disorders” would work?  That way, we can move beyond this weary debate and work to speak in a unified voice for adequate resources and rights for all people who struggle with cognitive-emotional-behavioral challenges, whatever we decide to call them.”

Rettew, D., M.D. (2015, Oct 8). Is Autism a Mental Illness? Psychology Today.
(Retrieved on 2019, Sept 1 from

My second search let to a side my side comparison of two different sources–First, and Secondly,

“Autism is a mental disorder that begins in childhood that is characterized by persistent impairments in being to engage in social communication and interaction with others. A person with autism often has restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities. The symptoms are present since childhood, and impact a person’s everyday living.
Autism exists on a spectrum. People with severe forms of autism may have a difficult time with everyday activities that significantly limit the kinds of things they do as an adult. People with less severe forms of autism may appear to be perfectly normal, except in certain social situations where the impairment becomes more apparent. Autism may exist with or without accompanying intellectual and language impairments.
An estimated 1 out of every 100 children suffers from autism, a disorder that causes disruption in families and unfulfilled lives for many children.
In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital studied a group of 11 children and introduced the label early infantile autism into the English language. At the same time a German scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, described a milder form of the disorder that became known as Asperger’s syndrome.
“Thus these two disorders were described and are today listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as neurodevelopmental disorders, more often referred to today as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). All these disorders are characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”

Framingham, Jane, Ph.D. (2019, May 27). An Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorders. (Retrieved on 2019, Sept 1. from

Whereas, from Psychology Today in 2008 said:

Jeanne Phillips, writing under the pen name Abigail van Buren, quotes a Mayo Clinic doctor to the effect that autism “affects behavior, cognitive ability and social skills” and notes that the syndrome appears as a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That list would seem to argue for the label Dear Abby had applied initially, mental health disorder.
No, Phillips now says. Autism is a “neurodevelopmental disorder.” But aren’t many mental illnesses neurodevelopmental disorders? Conditions that first appear in childhood are especially likely to fit that description. Think of pervasive developmental disorder or early-onset schizophrenia. Those conditions stand at the core of child psychiatry — and they are likely to require the services that, within medicine, the mental health professions provide.
The same is true for autism. The primary treatments are behavioral and psychological; where medications play a role, they tend to be the ones that psychiatrists prescribe. Much of the finest research on autism was performed by psychiatrists, such as my beloved teacher, the late Donald J. Cohen. His work serves as a model of integration, using the research methods of genetics and neuroscience and the therapeutic techniques of psychopharmacology, behaviorism, teacher training, and, yes, psychoanalysis, in a wiser mode.
Some of the impetus for the reclassifying autism is to spare affected families shame, that is, the shame of having raised a child with mental illness. This reaction is understandable, given the history of autism in psychiatry, and particularly in psychoanalysis where the condition was once attributed to bad parenting. Autism can be heartbreaking for parents; certainly it is a neurodevelopmental disorder, and if that’s what families prefer to call it, we should probably all join in. But then, the question arises, what is autism being distanced from? What do we make of families whose children suffer obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and the rest? We might note that autism overlaps substantially with those very diseases.”

Kramer, Peter D. (2008, July 31) Dear Abbey: Is Autism a Mental Illness. Psychology Today.
(Retrieved on Sept 1, 2019 at

But the most intriguing item I discovered comes from a post from a mom on Healthy Place.

Differences Between Autism vs. Childhood Mental Illness
“It’s not clear what causes autism, but the general consensus is that something occurs in-utero and/or genetically. This is why it’s labeled a “pervasive developmental disorder” (though please keep in mind that autistic people may not look at it as a disorder). Genetics play a role in some mental illnesses, too, but the environment plays a major role as well. For instance, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression can both occur in previously mentally healthy children following traumatic events. Environmental factors will not, meanwhile, trigger autism in an otherwise neurotypical child.
In addition, children with mental illness are generally capable of picking up social cues. Those cues are simply distorted by their illnesses. They may be too anxious around other people to look them in the eye, as opposed to ASD where eye contact may be overstimulating or painful. Hyperactive children like my son can’t control their energy levels, but they catch the cues from kids who are annoyed by that energy. Autistic children, meanwhile, may not notice how other children respond to repetitive behaviors.

Similarities Between Autism and Other Childhood Mental Illnesses
My son has significant anxiety, so one of the major things he shares with ASD is rigid thinking. Anxiety demands the comfort of predictability, so change causes him distress. Like autistic children, then, transitions are rough for him. A change from one classroom to another or an abrupt cancellation of plans may result in an angry outburst.
Sensory issues also occur in ASD and other childhood mental illnesses. Symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, for instance, include distractibility, and sounds are a huge distraction to my son. He can hear gum chewing or a pencil tapping from across a classroom, breaking his already-tenuous focus. As he grows more agitated, touch then becomes painful. Most parents try to hug their distressed child. Mine screams and hits if I try to touch him when he’s agitated.
Similarly, with autism spectrum disorder, every sound may have equal intensity, from a mosquito to a train whistle. The clash of opposite colors may hurt their eyes the way the sun hurts mine. While the reasons behind sensory sensitivity may differ between ASD and mental illnesses, outwardly, the response is the same: outbursts, isolation, and other behaviors that worry parents. These children are also equally unable to describe what’s happening. All parents, then, react similarly: we look for help.”

David, M. (2017, June 5). Autism vs. Childhood Mental Illness,
(Retrieved on Sept 1, 2019 from

What do you believe? Does autism spectrum disorder qualify as a mental illness or not? Or is it simply a matter of semantics?