Changing Severity of Autism Symptoms Linked to Mental Health Problems: Study

Changing Severity of Autism Symptoms Linked to Mental Health Problems: Study

Autism and children

When co-occurring mental health issues start to manifest in middle childhood, the severity of many autistic children’s core symptoms alters. Researchers at UC Davis Health have discovered new information about the link between middle childhood
mental health and characteristics of autism through a long-term study.

The study was conducted by Einat Waizbard-Bartov, Emilio Ferrer, Brianna Heath, Derek S Andrews, Sally Rogers, Connor M Kerns, Christine Wu Nordahl, Marjorie Solomon and David G Amaral. It was written in the Journal Autism of Sage Publications, and it discovers a correlation between changes in the fundamental traits of autism and whether or not kids experience new mental health issues or challenges while in primary school.

About the Study

According to earlier studies by the researcher Waizbard-Bartov, autism symptoms can drastically shift from age 3 to age 11. 75 autistic kids, aged 6 to 11, participated in this latest study, including 15 girls. All took part in the Autism Phenome Project, a sizable, extensive study conducted by the MIND Institute with the goal of finding several subtypes of autism. The research team assessed the children’s constrained and repetitive behaviours, such as seeking sensory stimulation, hand flapping, or adhering to defined routines. Using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule Calibrated Severity Score, they monitored changes in autism symptoms.

Through parental interviews and questionnaires, mental health symptoms (such as anxiety, issues with disruptive behaviour, and ADHD) were evaluated and compared between the groups. Co-occurring mental health problems were more strongly linked to
the severity of restricted/repetitive behaviour or change in social-communication symptoms than to the severity of all autistic symptoms. There were found to be two relevant groups, i.e., the “social communication symptom increasing severity group and
the restricted/repetitive behaviour decreasing severity group.”

Study Findings

21% of the youth had more severe social-communication issues, as well as higher anxiety, ADHD, and behavioural issues. By the age of 11, however, roughly 23% had reduced restricted and repetitive behaviours but had higher anxiety levels. 94% of them
matched the requirements for an anxiety disorder. One-third of the total subjects exhibited both worsening social-communication challenges and decreasing limited & repetitive behaviours.

A major finding supports the notion that restrictive and repetitive behaviours may be helpful for autistic people by showing a correlation between a decrease in these behaviours throughout primary school and the appearance of mental health issues.
During this time, social communication issues became more prevalent, which was also associated with anxiety and other mental health issues.

Words from Researchers

According to the authors, this study is the first to show a connection between mental health problems and a severe condition of autistic children’s social-communication difficulties.

Einat Waizbard-Bartov, a PhD researcher in developmental psychology at the UC Davis MIND Institute and the paper’s primary author, said, “Our findings indicate that different aspects of a child’s development may influence each other over time. Throughout development, core autism traits and mental health problems probably interact.”

“We were pleased to discover that our results confirmed what has been suspected by other autism researchers and clinicians as well as autistic individuals, that some forms of restricted and repetitive behaviours can potentially help to self-soothe,” said David Amaral, distinguished professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, faculty member at the MIND Institute, and senior author on the paper. According to Einat Waizbard-Bartov, “the results raise concerns about the efficacy of therapies aimed at eradicating these repetitive behaviours.”

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