Robust association between autistic traits and psychotic-like experiences in the adult general population: epidemiological study from the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey and replication with the 2014 APMS

Psychol Med. 2020 May 22;1-7. doi: 10.1017/S0033291720001373. Online ahead of print.


Background: Studies have shown that there are overlapping traits and symptoms between autism and psychosis but no study to date has addressed this association from an epidemiological approach in the adult general population. Furthermore, it is not clear whether autistic traits are associated with specific symptoms of psychosis or with psychosis in general. We assess these associations for the first time by using the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) 2007 and the APMS 2014, predicting an association between autistic traits and probable psychosis, and specific associations between autistic traits and paranoia and strange experiences.

Methods: Participants (N = 7353 in 2007 and 7500 in 2014) completed the Psychosis Screening Questionnaire (PSQ) and a 20-item version of the Autism Quotient (AQ-20). Binomial logistic regressions were performed using AQ-20 as the independent variable and probable psychosis and specific symptoms as dependent variables.

Results: In the APMS 2007 dataset, significant associations were found between autism traits and probable psychosis, paranoia, thought insertion, and strange experiences. These results were replicated in APMS 2014 but with the additional significant association between autistic traits and hallucinations. Participants in the highest quartile of the AQ-20, compared with the lowest quartile, had an increased risk of probable psychosis of odds ratio (OR) = 15.5 [95% confidence interval (CI) 4.57-52.6] in APMS 2007 and OR = 22.5 (95% CI 7.64-66.3) in APMS 2014.

Conclusions: Autistic traits are strongly associated with probable psychosis and psychotic experiences with the exception of mania. Limitations such as the cross-sectional nature of the study are discussed.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; co-occurrence; epidemiology; positive symptoms; schizophrenia spectrum disorder.