Changing Autism Traits Linked to Mental Health Conditions

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The characteristics of autism can change significantly between the ages of 3 and 11.

Published: 2023/10/14
Author: University of California – Davis Health – Contact: ucdavis.edu
Peer Reviewed: Yeah – Post type: Analysis of research studies
Related Posts: Latest – Complete list

In this page: SummaryMain articleAbout the Author

Synopsis: The study is the first to demonstrate an association between mental health problems and increased severity of social communication difficulties in autistic children. The study included 75 autistic children between the ages of 6 and 11, including 15 girls. They were all part of the MIND Institute’s Autism Phenome Project, a large long-term study aimed at identifying different subtypes of autism. A key finding was that a reduction in restrictive and repetitive behaviors during elementary school was related to the emergence of mental health problems, supporting the idea that these behaviors may benefit autistic individuals.

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Main summary

“Changes in the severity of autism symptoms are related to mental health problems during middle childhood” – Autism.

A long-term study by UC Davis Health researchers sheds new light on the relationship between autism traits and mental health in middle childhood. The article, published in the magazine Autismfinds that changes in the core features of autism are related to whether children develop additional mental health problems during their primary school years.

“Our findings suggest that different aspects of a child’s development can affect each other over time,” explained Einat Waizbard-Bartov, a doctoral researcher in developmental psychology at the UC Davis MIND Institute and lead author of the paper. “The core traits of autism and mental health challenges likely interact throughout development.”

A key finding was that a reduction in restrictive and repetitive behaviors during elementary school was related to the emergence of mental health problems, supporting the idea that these behaviors may benefit autistic individuals. An increase in social communication difficulties during this time was also linked to anxiety and other mental health problems.

Study design

Waizbard-Bartov has published previous research showing that the characteristics of autism can change significantly between ages 3 and 11.

The current study included 75 autistic children between the ages of 6 and 11, including 15 girls. They were all part of the MIND Institute’s Autism Phenome Project, a large long-term study aimed at identifying different subtypes of autism.

Through parent interviews and questionnaires, the research team assessed children for mental health symptoms and restricted, repetitive behaviors, which may include seeking sensory stimulation, waving their hands, or following established routines.

They tracked changes in autism characteristics using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule Calibrated Severity Score.

About a fifth (21%) of young people had more severe social communication difficulties, as well as increased anxiety, ADHD and behavioral problems. In contrast, almost 23% had fewer restricted and repetitive behaviors, but higher levels of anxiety at age 11. Almost all (94%) met criteria for an anxiety disorder.

About a third of the participants had decreasing restricted and repetitive behaviors and increasing social communication difficulties.

“We were pleased to see that our results confirmed what other autism researchers and clinicians, as well as autistic individuals, had suspected, that some forms of restricted, repetitive behaviors can potentially help self-soothe,” said David Amaral, distinguished professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, MIND Institute faculty member and lead author of the article.

Waizbard-Bartov notes that the findings call into question the wisdom of therapies that attempt to eliminate these behaviors.

“In light of this, when thinking about interventions, it may be that trying to eliminate repetitive behaviors without providing alternative calming tools is not the ideal way to go,” he said.

The study is the first, to the authors’ knowledge, to demonstrate an association between mental health challenges and increased severity of social communication difficulties in autistic children.

“This occurred in children who showed declines in the core traits of autism during early childhood and whose cognitive functioning was in the typical range. We currently do not understand why this happened. One possibility is that because of their relatively high cognitive ability, there were their social challenges, and this may have contributed to increased anxiety,” Amaral explained. “It’s definitely an area where we need more research.”

About the research study

Co-authors included Emilio Ferrer, Brianna Heath, Derek Andrews, Sally Rogers, Christine Wu Nordahl and Marjorie Solomon of UC Davis and Conner M. Kerns of the University of British Columbia.

This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01MH128814, R01MH127046, R01MH106518, and R01MH103284) and the MIND Institute Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (P50HD103526).

Attribution/Source(s):

This peer-reviewed research study analysis article related to our Autism Facts section was selected for publication by Disabled World editors because of its likely interest to our readers in the disability community. Although content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article “Changes in autism traits related to mental health conditions” was originally written by University of California – Davis Health and published by Disabled-World.com on 10/14/2023. If you require further information or clarification, you may contact the University of California – Davis Health at ucdavis.edu. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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Permanent link: Changes in autism traits linked to mental health conditions

Cite this page (APA): University of California – Davis Health. (2023, October 14). Changing autism traits related to mental health conditions. Disabled world. Retrieved October 15, 2023 from www.disabled-world.com/health/neurology/autism/trait.php

Disabled World provides general information only. The materials presented are never intended to be a substitute for qualified professional medical care, nor should they be construed as such. Funding is derived from advertisements or referral programs. Any third party offers or advertisements do not constitute an endorsement.

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