A new study has found that adults with autism are twice as likely as those without autism to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol, is one of the largest to explore the prevalence of anxiety in adults with autism. It is also unique in focusing on specific anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder.
Dheeraj Raj, a consultant senior lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Bristol, led the study, adding that researchers are “still very far behind in terms of how we measure [anxiety] in autistic adults.”
Raj and his colleagues examined the health records of adults aged 18 to 17 in the medical registry known as the Stockholm Youth Cohort. Out of the 221,694 people sampled, 4,049 have a diagnosis of autism. 20% of those adults were found to have an anxiety disorder, compared with less than 9% among the adults without autism. Almost 3.5% of the autistic adults have obsessive- compulsive disorder, while about 3% have social phobia.
The study’s findings were published in October in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The researchers also believe that genes or shared environmental factors may contribute to the overlap between anxiety and autism, due to the fact that non-autistic siblings of children with autism have higher odds of anxiety than the general population.
For their next step, the researchers plan to explore why anxiety is so common among people with autism, and to develop better ways of treating and evaluating it.