Association of autistic traits in adulthood with childhood abuse, interpersonal victimization, and posttraumatic stress

Child Abuse Negl. 2015 Jul:45:135-42. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.04.010. Epub 2015 May 6.


Persons with autistic traits may be at elevated risk for interpersonal victimization across the life course. Children with high levels of autistic traits may be targeted for abuse, and deficits in social awareness may increase risk of interpersonal victimization. Additionally, persons with autistic traits may be at elevated risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms subsequent to trauma. We examined retrospectively reported prevalence of childhood abuse, trauma victimization and PTSD symptoms by autistic traits among adult women in a population-based longitudinal cohort, the Nurses' Health Study II (N=1,077). Autistic traits were measured by the 65-item Social Responsiveness Scale. We estimated odds ratios (OR) for childhood sexual and physical/emotional abuse and PTSD symptoms by quintiles of autistic traits. We examined possible mediation of PTSD risk by abuse and trauma type. Women in the highest versus lowest quintile of autistic traits were more likely to have been sexually abused (40.1% versus 26.7%), physically/emotionally abused (23.9% versus 14.3%), mugged (17.1% versus 10.1%), pressured into sexual contact (25.4% versus 15.6%) and have high PTSD symptoms (10.7% versus 4.5%). Odds of PTSD were elevated in women in the top three quintiles of autistic traits compared with the reference group (OR range=1.4 to 1.9). Childhood abuse exposure partly accounted for elevated risk of PTSD in women with autistic traits. We identify for the first time an association between autistic traits, childhood abuse, trauma victimization, and PTSD. Levels of autistic traits that are highly prevalent in the general population are associated with abuse, trauma and PTSD.

Keywords: Autistic traits; Broad autism spectrum; Child physical abuse; Child sexual abuse; Posttraumatic stress disorder; Violence victimization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data
  • Autistic Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Crime Victims / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Logistic Models
  • Middle Aged
  • Nurses
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Sex Offenses / psychology*
  • Sex Offenses / statistics & numerical data
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Women's Health