Investigating the relationship between autism and posttraumatic stress disorder in young adults

2022-23 – Flinders University

Researchers: Lead Investigator – Professor Robyn Young; Co-Investigator – Dr Alliyza Lim

Priority Area: Youth Mental Health

Overview: There are increasing suggestions that autistic individuals are more likely to perceive stressful events to be traumatic and to develop symptoms of PTSD. This study aimed to better understand how autistic young adults experience and respond to stressful life events, and what pathways autistic traits may increase an individual’s vulnerability to developing PTSD symptomology following a stressful event. Understanding the relationship between autism and perceptions of trauma will assist in identifying risk factors for PTSD among autistic young adults and shed light on areas of intervention that may require greater emphasis when working with an autistic population.

The study identified a number of key themes in autistic adults’ experience of traumatic events; namely:

• The autistic experience of trauma is fundamentally different
• Trauma is defined by the effects, not the event
• Autism is already difficult:

o Autistic characteristics as a precursor to trauma
o Autistic characteristics amplify the impact of trauma
o Autistic behaviours as a healthy or unhealthy coping strategy
o Autism compounds barriers to receiving support

These findings are consistent with the findings of past studies that autistic individuals are more likely to
experience traumatic events and develop symptoms of PTSD.

The findings of this study highlight the need for further research to: better understand barriers to autistic individuals accessing professional mental health support following a traumatic event, identify strategies to reduce barriers to support for autistic individuals following a traumatic event, and investigate possible strategies to improve the efficacy of trauma intervention for autistic populations.