The perceived causal relations between sensory reactivity differences and anxiety symptoms in autistic adults

Isabelle Verhulst, Keren MacLennan, Anthony Haffey, Teresa Tavassoli

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Background: Rates of anxiety are inordinately high in autistic adults. Sensory reactivity differences, such as hyperreactivity (e.g., strong reactions to sound), hyporeactivity (e.g., no, or slower reactions to pain), and seeking (e.g., fascination with spinning objects), are a diagnostic criterion of autism and have been linked with anxiety. Understanding how individuals perceive these to be causally related can impact the assessment and treatment of anxiety. Therefore, we examined the perceived causal relations (PCR) between sensory reactivity differences and anxiety in autistic adults.

Method: Two hundred forty-six autistic adults aged 18–76 years took part in an online study. They completed self-report assessments of sensory reactivity differences, and anxiety, followed by the PCR scale, indicating whether they perceived their sensory reactivity differences to be more of a cause or an effect of their anxiety symptoms.

Results: We found sensory reactivity hyperreactivity, hyporeactivity, and seeking to be significantly correlated with anxiety. Further, we found total sensory hyperreactivity, and visual, auditory, and olfactory hyperreactivity, to be perceived as significantly more of a cause of anxiety than an effect, and total sensory seeking, and tactile and vestibular seeking, to be perceived as significantly more of an effect of anxiety than a cause.

Conclusion: Future individualized approaches to treating anxiety in autistic individuals may benefit from differentiating between potential sensory causes of anxiety (e.g. hypersensitivities) vs. potential sensory effects of anxiety (e.g. sensory seeking behaviors).
Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism in Adulthood
Issue number3
Early online date19 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2022


  • autism spectrum disorder
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Sensory processing
  • Sensory Perception
  • perceived causal relationship
  • Adult

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