Background: Alexithymia (difficulties in identifying and describing emotion) is a transdiagnostic trait implicated in social-emotional and mental health problems in the general population. Many autistic individuals experience significant social-communication difficulties and elevated anxiety/depression and alexithymia. Nevertheless, the role of alexithymia in explaining individual variability in the quality/severity of social-communication difficulties and/or anxiety and depression symptoms in autism remains poorly understood.
Methods: In total, 337 adolescents and adults (autism N = 179) were assessed for alexithymia on the Toronto Alexithymia Scale and for social-communication difficulties, anxiety and depression symptoms. A total of 135 individuals (autism N = 76) were followed up 12-24 months later. We used regression models to establish cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between alexithymia, social-communication difficulties, anxiety and depression symptoms.
Results: Autistic individuals reported significantly higher alexithymia than comparison individuals (p < 0.001, r effect size = 0.48), with 47.3% of autistic females and 21.0% of autistic males meeting cut-off for clinically relevant alexithymia (score ⩾61). Difficulties in describing feelings were particularly associated with current self-reported social-communication difficulties [p < 0.001, β = 0.57, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.44-0.67] and predicted later social-communication difficulties (p = 0.02, β = 0.43, 95% CI 0.07-0.82). Difficulties in identifying feelings were particularly associated with current anxiety symptom severity (p < 0.001, β = 0.54, 95% CI 0.41-0.77) and predicted later anxiety (p = 0.01; β = 0.31, 95% CI 0.08-0.62).
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that difficulties in identifying v. describing emotion are associated with differential clinical outcomes in autism. Psychological therapies targeting emotional awareness may improve social-communication and anxiety symptoms in autism, potentially conferring long-term benefits.
Keywords: Alexithymia; anxiety; autism; depression; mental health.