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Improving mental health for people with autism

Research awardFellows Award programme

Funding period2018-2021

InstitutionUniversity of Reading

LocationUnited Kingdom

Most people with autism spectrum disorder experience the sensory world around them, such as sounds and touch, differently – but how is this impacting their mental health? 

The project

Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel overwhelmed by sounds or touch. Around 80% of autistic individuals experience problems with how they experience the sensory world.

These ‘sensory reactivity’ symptoms can make every day activities like visiting a busy supermarket challenging and unpleasant. A recent survey also suggested that they could be having an impact on mental health – but we don’t yet fully understand the link.

So, Teresa Tavassoli and her team at the University of Reading are running a study to see if these sensory symptoms could be causing issues like anxiety, enabling us to improve interventions and reduce mental health problems. 

The process

To fully understand the link between these symptoms, Teresa and her team will spend two years following 70 autistic children: at age 4, 5 and 6. 

At each age, Teresa will measure how the children respond to sensory stimuli directly, by assessing their reactions to sounds or touch. She’ll also ask the children’s caregivers questions about how their child reacts to the sensory world. In addition, scientific questionnaires, interviews and computer-based tasks will be used to assess levels of anxiety and other mental health symptoms. 

The research will reveal the relationship between anxiety and sensory sensitivity, and how this changes over time.

The potential

By understanding if sensory reactivity symptoms put young people at a greater risk of anxiety, a new opportunity for intervention is created. 

For example, many autistic people are offered occupational therapy to help them manage different tasks, Teresa’s work could make the case for weaving anxiety treatments into this support.

The research will offer the desperately-needed evidence to improve mental health in autistic communities and even prevent problems from developing in the first place.

This project is jointly funded with Autistica

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