Autistic adults could be more likely to experience financial difficulties, domestic abuse and bullying, according to new research.

We are proud to have funded this study, which is the first of its kind. But the results are shocking. The study found that far more autistic adults had experienced a range of difficult and distressing life events, compared to non-autistic adults.

Now the team behind this research are asking, ‘could this be why more autistic adults experience mental health difficulties?’

Anxiety and depression are extremely common among autistic adults. However, very few studies have investigated if this is because they are more likely to experience distressing events like employment difficulties or sexual abuse.

If we already know that these events increase the risk of anxiety and depression in the general population, then why has no-one focused on their impact on autistic people?

With the right support these events should be preventable.

- Dr Sarah Griffiths, lead author of the paper

Along with her team, based at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, Dr Griffiths hopes that their work will persuade Government to make more efforts to protect autistic people. "We need to ensure that all autistic adults have appropriate support to reduce their vulnerability and to improve their mental health outcomes."

How do you measure experience?

The team faced a challenge when it came to measuring people’s experience and vulnerability, as it hadn’t really been done before. To solve this problem they developed a new measure called the Vulnerability Experiences Quotient (VEQ).

The team created an online survey, which asked people if they had experienced any of 60 negative events. Groups of both autistic and non-autistic adults answered the survey.

More autistic people reported having experienced 52 of the 60 negative events, which included financial trouble, bullying and sexual abuse. The difference in the numbers paints a chilling picture:

  • 45% of autistic adults said they had experienced a period of life where they didn’t have enough money to meet basic needs, compared to 25% of the non-autistic adults.
  • 20% of autistic adults who had been in a relationship reported they had been sexually abused by their partner, compared to 9% of the non-autistic adults.

The results of this study are a wake-up call

- Dr Carrie Allison, one of the research team at Cambridge

That’s why we funded this research, so that people in power will realise the serious extent of negative experiences that autistic adults suffer in most areas of their lives.

What does this mean for mental health?

The survey also asked people about their mental health. As well as experiencing more difficult life events, autistic adults also reported higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms.

So what does this mean? This study doesn’t necessarily prove that negative life experiences are a direct cause of certain mental health conditions for autistic people. However, it definitely supports the idea that being at risk of experiencing these distressing episodes is responsible for the higher rates of mental health difficulties in autistic adults.

Read the full research

Next steps

Now the team behind the study are hoping that this research can persuade the Government to provide more support for autistic adults, as a way of preventing possible mental health difficulties. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, says: "This research is vital to inform Government policymakers worldwide about the appalling violations of autistic people’s human rights. Our next step will be working hard to translate these findings into new policies, such as the need for every autistic person to have a life-long support worker to whom they can turn to help them navigate the world."

Please help us fund more research like this. With your support, we fund research projects that will shine a light on the challenges autistic people face, and enable the autistic community to campaign for changes in policy.

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