Cumulative life events, traumatic experiences, and psychiatric symptomatology in transition-aged youth with autism spectrum disorder

J Neurodev Disord. 2016 Jul 27;8:28. doi: 10.1186/s11689-016-9160-y. eCollection 2016.


Background: Co-occurring mood and anxiety symptomatology is commonly observed among youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) during adolescence and adulthood. Yet, little is known about the factors that might predispose youth with ASD to mood and anxiety problems. In this study, we focus on the role of cumulative stressful life events and trauma in co-occurring psychopathology among youth with ASD who are preparing to exit high school. Specifically, we examined the distribution of cumulative life events and traumatic experiences and their relations with mood and anxiety symptomatology.

Methods: Participants included 36 youth with ASD, all of whom were in their last year of high school. Cumulative life events and trauma were assessed by parent report. Mood and anxiety symptomatology was determined using a variety of methods (structured interview, questionnaire, self- and informant report). Frequencies were used to examine the distributions of cumulative life events (count of total events) and trauma (coded into any trauma vs. no trauma), as well as mood and anxiety symptomatology (categorized into clinical-level, sub-threshold, or none for each). Bivariate relations between life events/trauma and mood/anxiety symptomatology were assessed using analysis of variance and chi-square. Ordinal logistic regression models were used to test whether significant bivariate relations remained after controlling for the sex of the youth with ASD and his/her IQ.

Results: Over 50 % of youth had experienced at least one trauma. Nearly one half had clinical-level mood or anxiety symptomatology. There was a statistically significant relation between absence/presence of trauma and mood symptomatology; nearly 90 % of the youth with clinical-level mood symptoms had at least one trauma, compared to 40 % of those with no mood symptomatology.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that contextual factors such as trauma might be important for the development of mood symptomatology in individuals with ASD. Although this idea is well-accepted in typically developing populations, contextual factors are rarely studied in investigations of psychopathology or transition outcomes in ASD. Given the high rates of psychiatric comorbidities in this population, future research should continue to identify the range of possible factors-both behavioral and contextual-that might influence the emergence of these disorders.

Keywords: Anxiety; Autism spectrum disorder; Depression; Internalizing; Life events; Trauma.