Examining Rates of Traumatic Events and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Among Autistic Adults

Theresa Andrzejewski, Saily Gomez Batista, Tamara Abu-Ramadan, Kaitlyn E. Breitenfeldt, Alison U. Tassone, Ashley Winch, David C. Rozek, Christina G. McDonnell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Autistic adults experience high rates of traumatic events and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. However, less is known about how autistic adults experience (i.e., by directly experiencing, witnessing, and/or learning about) distinct types of traumatic events (e.g., social, nonsocial traumas). Little research has considered whether the four-factor structure of PTSD symptom domains (e.g., avoidance, intrusions, hypervigilance, negative mood/cognition) can be applied for autistic adults. Lastly, understanding how demographic factors (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity) relate to rates of traumatic events and symptoms among autistic adults is critical for understanding disparities relating to PTSD. Therefore, the current study aims to examine self-reported traumatic events and PTSD symptoms, and identify associations with demographic factors, among autistic adults. Methods: Participants included 276 autistic adults and a nationally representative sample of 361 nonautistic adults who completed online measures, including the Life Events Checklist for DSM-5, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5), Autism-Spectrum Quotient-Short, and Patient Health Questionnaire-4. Analyses focused on evaluating group differences in traumatic events and symptoms and considered associations with demographic factors. Results: Autistic adults reported significantly higher rates of directly experiencing, witnessing, and learning about traumatic events than nonautistic adults, including more interpersonal events (e.g., physical assault, sexual assault) and fewer transportation accidents than nonautistic adults. Autistic adults also reported significantly higher levels of all PTSD symptom clusters than nonautistic adults. A confirmatory factor analysis and follow-up invariance analyses of the PCL-5 revealed that the four-factor Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) PTSD symptom subscale structure was equivalent across groups of autistic and nonautistic adults. Conclusion: Autistic adults experienced more traumatic events and PTSD symptoms overall, particularly more interpersonal traumas and hyperarousal and negative mood/cognition symptoms than nonautistic adults. Future research should examine outcomes of trauma exposure, identify protective factors, and examine efficacy of trauma-focused treatments for autistic individuals, in partnership with autistic adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAutism in Adulthood
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2023
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • autism
  • autistic adults
  • posttraumatic stress disorder
  • traumatic events

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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