Better Mental Health Month:

Focus on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

by Carolann Garafola, MA

May is Better Mental Health Month and with it comes an opportunity for all of us to consider how we address and understand the issues that families as well as their adult/children struggle with who may not only have special needs issues, but also are on the Autism Spectrum, and/or have Developmental Disabilities with mental health issues. These are issues that we do not “see” but exist to such a degree that it leads and governs a child’s or adult’s life and controls it. Children and adults on the autism spectrum (ASD) often have a co-existing mental health disorder that may be undiagnosed, especially for those who are higher functioning cognitively. The research has shown that persons with ASD exhibit an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorder compared to the general population. Studies have reported that between 67% to 71% of individuals with ASD also have mental health disorders.

We know from our experience in working with children and adults that the higher the functioning and understanding of the person with ASD, the greater the concern that those with ASD know that they are different. They want to be just like everyone else and struggle socially, verbally and cognitively to fit in. Co-morbid psychiatric conditions contribute to even greater mental health stress for our children and adults, and in fact, may be found twice as likely in persons with ASD. After speaking with, meeting with and or communicating with over 500 families who have visited Mt. Bethel Village, a supportive housing community for adults with ASD and Developmental Disabilities, the social-emotional issues clearly are prevalent and the use of psychotropic drugs are part of the adult/child treatment plan. The goals for our adults and children are to have a meaningful role in life, a purpose, a reason for being and a place in our communities.

The prevalence of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common co-occurring psychiatric disorders among children with ASD as well as anxiety symptoms (over 40%). In addition, the existence of phobias or fears, social anxiety, panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may each be part of the mental health picture of the child or adult with OCD. We see these presented almost every day in some of our Day Program adults and our residents at Mt. Bethel Village; and we work with their families and counseling professionals to use strategies that engage our adults in meaningful and purposeful activities that support them. We know that our adults with ASD have social and communication deficit, problem-solving/coping skills and behavior patterns that need to be managed differently from others of their same chronological age level. Awareness of their “differentness” continues to hamper our children and adults in their development and contributes to anxiety and depression. Getting help for them is not easy and it is difficult in identifying professionals with expertise in psychiatric/psychological disorders who can participate in the assessment and treatment/educational decision-making teams when a co-morbid disorder is suspected.

Our issues in society are: we “know it”, we “acknowledge it”, and yet we continue to lack the sufficient services available to everyone; and we lack the skills on how to cope with it, especially when it is a loved one, a child, a sister, a brother, or an adult who is a friend. So during the month of May in which we want to heighten the awareness of mental health concerns, see what each of us can do to step outside our safe and secure boxes, gain an understanding and help someone in the best way we can, especially for those with ASD. For help in this area, the following resources include:

Head of the State of New Jersey’s Mental Health Services, Lynn A. Kovich, M.Ed., at:
P.O. Box 700
Trenton, NJ 08625
Toll-free: 1-800-382-6717

Website For the Consumer:

Frequently asked questions:
Finding a psychiatrist or psychologist who works with children and/or adults with ASD, check with Autism, NJ’s website:


In conclusion, go out and make a difference.


Carolann Garafola, MA, is Executive Director of Mt. Bethel Village, a Supportive Housing Community for Adults with Autism, Developmental Disabilities and Traumatic Brain Injury, 130 Mt. Bethel Road, Warren, NJ 07059.,, 908-757-7000 x201, c-908-922-1973

Benjamin D. Eckman, Esq. concentrates his practice on Elder Law & Estate Planning. Elder law is intended to broadly assist “extended living”. An elder law practitioner provides the legal information necessary for persons whose lives will extend or have already extended beyond the time when all children are usually out of the house and when regular employment ceases. After the elder law attorney and client complete their work, legal documents have been drafted, tax considerations have been analyzed, and a plan to protect the elder’s estate has been implemented.

Benjamin D. Eckman’s practice focuses on Estate Planning & Elder Law – legal issues facing senior citizens. Benjamin D. Eckman received his Bachelor’s Degree in Business/Accounting from Touro College and his law degree from Seton Hall University School of Law. He is a member of the New York State Bar Association, the New Jersey State Bar Association, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, the Elder Law Section and Real Property, Probate and Trust Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, the Union County Bar Association, Passaic County Bar Association and the Bergen County Bar Association. He can be reached at (973) 709-0909, (908) 206-1000 or (201) 263-9161.