Emotional dysregulation plays a significant role in the relationship between anxiety and autism severity in women

New research suggests that there is a link between anxiety symptoms and the severity of autism. The study also provides evidence that the ability to regulate emotions plays an important role for women with autism. The findings appear in the journal Autism research.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been linked to an increased likelihood of anxiety, a feeling that can range from mild uneasiness to intense fear and panic. Research has further revealed that emotion regulation is related to the levels of anxiety experienced by those with autism spectrum disorder. Also, some studies have suggested that women on the autistic spectrum may experience higher rates of anxiety compared to men with autism.

But most research on autism has been conducted with predominantly male samples. The authors behind the new research sought to better understand anxiety symptoms among women with intellectual disabilities and autism.

“The presence of anxiety symptoms in the population with ASD is much higher than that found in the general population; therefore, it is important to study these symptoms and try to understand them,” explained study author Gema Sáez-Suanes (@Gema_SS), professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. “Variables such as gender have traditionally been associated with the occurrence of more anxiety, but their role in people with ASD had not been investigated. Remember that gender plays an important role in autism.”

The study included 81 male and 40 female participants diagnosed with ASD and intellectual disability. The participants were aged 18 to 62 and were recruited from health facilities in Madrid and Galicia.

The researchers found that greater anxiety symptomatology was positively correlated with emotional dysregulation. In other words, those who struggled to manage their emotions and adapt their emotional response to their current context were more likely to show symptoms of anxiety. “These findings suggest that individuals with ASD are generally vulnerable to internalizing psychopathologies, given that they use a greater number of maladaptive strategies to regulate their emotions,” the researcher wrote.

Sáez-Suanes and her colleagues also found that emotional dysregulation strengthened the relationship between autism and anxiety symptoms among female (but not male) participants.

“It would be interesting for us to be aware that the emotional regulation problems that people with autism have put them at risk of having more anxiety symptoms than the non-autistic population. Also, this does not affect men and women in the same way, Sáez-Suanes told PsyPost.

However, she added that “many issues remain to be resolved. Anxiety in autism is not well understood, we need diagnostic criteria and effective treatments for this group.”

The study, “Does gender matter?: Anxiety symptoms and emotion dysregulation in adults with autism and intellectual disabilities,” was authored by Gema P. Sáez-Suanes, Domingo García-Villamisar, and Araceli del Pozo Armentia.

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