Traumatic life experiences and post-traumatic stress symptoms in middle-aged and older adults with and without autistic traits

Stewart, Gavin R.; Corbett, Anne; Ballard, Clive; Creese, Byron; Aarsland, Dag; Hampshire, Adam; Charlton, Rebecca A and Happé, Francesca. 2022. Traumatic life experiences and post-traumatic stress symptoms in middle-aged and older adults with and without autistic traits. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 37(2), ISSN 0885-6230 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Research with younger adults has begun to explore associations between autism/autistic traits and vulnerability to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Large scale studies and/or examination of age-effects have not been conducted.

Adults aged 50 years+ from the PROTECT study (n = 20,220) completed items about current and childhood socio-communicative difficulties characteristic of autism. Approximately 1% (n = 251) endorsed high autistic traits, henceforth the Autism Spectrum Traits (AST) group. Differences between the AST and an age—and sex-matched “Comparison Older Adults” (COA; n = 9179) group were explored for lifetime traumatic experiences and current symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Almost 30% of the AST group, compared to less than 8% of the COA, reported severe trauma in childhood/adulthood, including emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Elevated current PTSD symptoms were reported by AST compared to COA. An interaction was observed between autistic traits and trauma severity; the effect of level of trauma on PTSD symptoms was significantly greater for AST versus COA participants. This interaction remained significant when controlling for current depression and anxiety symptoms.

The findings suggest that high autistic traits may increase the likelihood of experiencing trauma across the lifespan, and the impact of severe trauma on PTSD symptoms. Older adults with high (vs. low) autistic traits may be at greater risk of experiencing PTSD symptoms in latter life. Future research should test whether the pattern of results is similar for diagnosed autistic adults.

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Funding information: National Institute for Health Research; Economic and Social Research Council


ageing, ASD, autistic traits, gerontautism, mental health, older adults, PTSD, trauma

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18 December 2021Accepted
7 January 2022Published Online
February 2022Published

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Date Deposited:

10 Jan 2022 15:33

Last Modified:

11 Jan 2022 18:14

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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