Autistic adults are vulnerable to many types of negative life experience

Autistic adults experience high rates of adverse life events, including employment difficulties, financial hardship, domestic abuse, and ‘mate-crime.’

Mental health conditions, for example, anxiety and depression, are incredibly normal in autistic adults. Negative life experiences increase the risk of anxiety and depression in the general population, yet few studies have explored whether exposure to these sorts of encounters may be in charge of higher rates of depression and anxiety.

One obstruction to examining vulnerability in autism is the absence of appropriate measures.

Now, scientists at the University of Cambridge, Autism Research Centre, have developed a new measure called the Vulnerability Experiences Quotient (VEQ).

The VEQ measure asks participants whether they have experienced 60 adverse life events, across a wide variety of settings, and including both adulthood and childhood experiences.

For the study, scientists volunteered 426 autistic adults and 268 non-autistic adults. Autistic adults with a clinical diagnosis and non‐autistic controls completed the VEQ, screening measures for anxiety and depression, and a life‐satisfaction scale in an online survey.

Using binary logistic regression, scientists compared the likelihood of experiencing each VEQ event between groups. Mediation analysis was used to test whether total VEQ score mediated the relationship between autism and (1) depression, (2) anxiety, and (3) life satisfaction.

Autistic adults reported higher rates of the majority of events in the VEQ than non‐autistic adults. They also reported more anxiety and depression symptoms and lower life satisfaction.

The study proves that these negative experiences cause depression, anxiety, or lower life satisfaction. Also, the study is consistent with the idea that vulnerability to adverse life experiences is partially responsible for higher rates of anxiety and depression and lower life satisfaction in autistic adults.

Lead author Dr. Sarah Griffiths, said: “This research highlights the challenges that autistic adults face in our society. With the right support, many of these events are preventable. We need to ensure that all autistic adults have appropriate support to reduce their vulnerability and to improve their mental health outcomes.”

Dr. Carrie Allison, one of the Cambridge research team, said: “The results of this study are a wake-up call indicating the serious extent of negative experiences that autistic adults suffer in most areas of their lives. This study focused on intellectually able autistic adults due to the online survey method. Future work will focus on adults with intellectual disability who may have a different set of vulnerabilities.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, said: “This research is vital to inform Government policymakers worldwide about the appalling violations of autistic people’s human rights. Our next step will be working hard to translate these findings into new policies, such as the need for every autistic person to have a life-long support worker to whom they can turn to help them navigate the world.”

Clara, an autistic adult from London, commented on the study: “This research is so important to me. Despite being intelligent and good with people, I’ve had too many negative challenging situations in my life – with work, close relationships, access to health, social services, and education. It has affected and continues to affect my mental health.”

Scientists reported their study in the Autism Research.

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