Changing autism traits linked to mental health conditions: Study

by Rahul Devi

A new study has found that certain restrictive and repetitive behaviors may actually help reduce anxiety in autistic individuals. The research, published in the journal Autism, provides valuable insights into the relationship between autism traits and mental health in middle childhood.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-Davis, examined the core autism characteristics of 75 autistic children aged 6 to 11. The findings revealed that changes in these behaviors during elementary school were related to the development of additional mental health challenges. Specifically, a reduction in restrictive and repetitive behaviors was linked to the emergence of mental health challenges, suggesting that these behaviors may actually benefit autistic individuals.

On the other hand, an increase in social-communication difficulties during this time was found to be associated with anxiety and other mental health challenges. It is worth noting that nearly all participants met the criteria for an anxiety disorder, highlighting the high prevalence of anxiety among autistic individuals.

Interestingly, the study also found that around 23 percent of the children showed a decrease in restrictive and repetitive behaviors but experienced higher levels of anxiety by age 11. This indicates that while these behaviors may have some self-soothing benefits, they may also contribute to increased anxiety in certain cases.

The results of this study challenge the prevailing wisdom in some therapeutic interventions that aim to eliminate these restrictive and repetitive behaviors. The researchers suggest that alternative self-soothing tools should be provided alongside efforts to reduce these behaviors, as completely eliminating them may not be the most effective approach.

Lead author Einat Waizbard-Bartov, a doctoral researcher in developmental psychology, emphasizes that more research is needed to fully understand why certain children show increases in anxiety and social-communication difficulties despite decreases in core autism traits. One possibility is that these children, who have relatively high cognitive ability, become more aware of their social challenges, leading to increased anxiety.

Overall, this study highlights the complex relationship between autism traits and mental health challenges in middle childhood. It underscores the need for tailored interventions that consider the individual needs and characteristics of autistic individuals, aiming to provide effective support for their mental well-being.

Further research in this area could provide valuable insights into the factors contributing to mental health challenges among autistic individuals and inform the development of targeted interventions to improve their overall well-being.

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