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5 studies transforming mental health in autism

1% of the UK population is autistic - that's about 700,000 people. Mental health conditions are much more common in autistic people compared to the general population, with over 70% of autistic people affected. Anxiety affects 40% of autistic people and depression 30%. These conditions can cause serious distress and have huge impacts on everyday life. 

Are autistic people more likely to experience mental health issues because of their symptoms and difficulties interacting with the world around them? Or are there similar causes of autism and mental health conditions? And, most importantly, how can we improve mental health and quality of life for people affected?

Research is uncovering the answers to all these vital questions.

Treatments for mental health conditions are out there - but they don’t work for everyone. They need adapting for autistic people. And we need to develop new treatments too.

Here we look at five vital studies aiming to do just that.

The sensory world

Many autistic people are overwhelmed by the world around them - the sounds, lights or touch. For some, this can make many everyday situations unbearable.

This ‘sensory reactivity’ affects about 80% autistic people and has previously been linked with anxiety. But it is not yet known if it is the cause. Researchers led by Dr Teresa Tavassoli  are studying the link between the two.

If they confirm the connection, this offers new hope. If over sensitivity can be picked up and treated early on, this may also help prevent anxiety.

Inside the body

As well as sensitivity to external stimuli like sounds or touch, some autistic people are very sensitive to changes within their own bodies. 

A sense of what is happening inside our bodies might not be something we think about often - but it is there. A stomach ache, a racing heart or fast breathing are things we might notice.

Often, we know why our heart beats faster. We might have run up a hill, or we are nervous. But autistic people may both mis-judge changes within their own body, and react very strongly to them. This can cause stress or anxiety.

Researchers at Sussex University have developed a new app that aims to help people interpret senses from within their bodies. It monitors someone’s heartbeat and helps them judge it. In turn, this should decrease anxiety. The team are testing how effective the app can be - and aim to improve everyday life for those affected. 

Reducing fear of uncertainty

Many young autistic people experience anxiety when they can’t predict what is going to happen. This can be very stressful and cause someone to react negatively to new situations or events. Some people will completely avoid any new situations.

This fear of uncertainty is known to be important in anxiety - yet this is the first time a treatment is aiming to alleviate it.

To help young autistic people with anxiety, researchers led by Dr Jacqui Rodgers have developed a new therapy - aimed at their parents. 

Parents learn strategies to help their child cope with a range of situations in everyday life.  The researchers are looking at how well the therapy works for families. If successful, they will work to make the therapy available in the NHS for those who need it.

CBT for depression

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a recommended treatment for both anxiety and depression. A common part of CBT is self-help materials and support from a psychologist. It has been found that with adaptations, can be useful for autistic adults with anxiety.

A team at Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health NHS Partnership Trust  are now assessing if these CBT techniques can be adapted to help autistic adults with depression. They are working with autistic adults to develop materials for their needs. They will then test the materials in a clinical trial to see how effective they are - offering new hope for those affected.

Virtual Reality for Phobias

Specific phobias, or fears, are common feature of anxiety for autistic children. They can cause big problems in everyday life.

For children not on the autism spectrum, treatment for phobias includes gradual exposure to their fear, by imagining it. They also learn about their feelings. But autistic children find both imagining situations, and recognising and discussing emotions, difficult.

This is where virtual reality (VR) comes in. A realistic VR environment can be created that is specific for the child, showing the situation or object of their phobia. A therapist teaches coping strategies in the VR sessions, and helps the child to relax. In a small pilot study this was shown to be very effective.

The researchers at Newcastle University are now testing the therapy in more people. They are also investigating how it can be delivered in the NHS.

All of these studies offer new hope for autistic people affected by mental health conditions. With research, we can transform lives. 

Last updated: 6 June 2019

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