Autism and chronic ill health: an observational study of symptoms and diagnoses of central sensitivity syndromes in autistic adults

Sarah Grant, Sam Norton, Ricarda F. Weiland, Anke M. Scheeren, Sander Begeer, Rosa Hoekstra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Autistic adults, particularly women, are more likely to experience chronic ill health than the general population. Central sensitivity syndromes (CSS) are a group of related conditions that are thought to include an underlying sensitisation of the central nervous system; heightened sensory sensitivity is a common feature. Anecdotal evidence suggests autistic adults may be more prone to developing a CSS. This study aimed to investigate the occurrence of CSS diagnoses and symptoms in autistic adults, and to explore whether CSS symptoms were related to autistic traits, mental health, sensory sensitivity, or gender. Methods: The full sample of participants included 973 autistic adults (410 men, 563 women, mean age = 44.6) registered at the Netherlands Autism Register, who completed questionnaires assessing autistic traits, sensory sensitivity, CSS, physical and mental health symptoms. The reliability and validity of the Central Sensitization Inventory (CSI) in an autistic sample was established using exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses. Chi2 analyses, independent t-tests, hierarchical regression and path analysis were used to analyse relationships between CSS symptoms, autistic traits, measures of mental health and wellbeing, sensory sensitivity, age and gender. Results: 21% of participants reported one or more CSS diagnosis, and 60% scored at or above the clinical cut-off for a CSS. Autistic women were more likely to report a CSS diagnosis and experienced more CSS symptoms than men. Sensory sensitivity, anxiety, age and gender were significant predictors of CSS symptoms, with sensory sensitivity and anxiety fully mediating the relationship between autistic traits and CSS symptoms. Limitations: Although this study included a large sample of autistic adults, we did not have a control group or a CSS only group. We also could not include a non-binary group due to lack of statistical power. Conclusions: CSS diagnoses and symptoms appear to be very common in the autistic population. Increased awareness of an association between autism and central sensitisation should inform clinicians and guide diagnostic practice, particularly for women where CSS are common and autism under recognised.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7
JournalMolecular Autism
Issue number1
Early online date14 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • Autism
  • Central sensitisation
  • Sensory processing
  • Sensory sensitivity
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic Pain


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