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Exploring the impact of adolescent cognitive inflexibility on emotional and behavioural problems experienced by autistic adults

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Matthew J. Hollocks, Tony Charman, Gillian Baird, Catherine Lord, Andrew Pickles, Emily Simonoff

Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism
DOIs
Accepted/In press2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article: The most recent wave of data collection was supported by a project grant from Autism Speaks (grant no. 7729). Wave 2 data collection was supported by a grant from the UK Medical Research Council (grant no. G0400065). Statistical analysis was supported the Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK NHS, NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care. Publisher Copyright: © The Author(s) 2021. Copyright: Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

King's Authors

Abstract

Autistic young people experience high levels of co-occurring mental health difficulties, including anxiety, depression and behavioural difficulties, across their lifespan. Understanding the neuropsychological mechanisms which underlie these difficulties is vital in developing personalised supports and interventions. Cognitive inflexibility is one candidate mechanism which is associated with co-occurring mental health comorbidities but is also associated with other features of autism such as restricted and repetitive behaviours. This study investigates the distinct longitudinal association between cognitive inflexibility, measured using objective neuropsychological measures and emotional and behavioural problems across adolescence and early adulthood. Eighty-one autistic people from a population-based longitudinal study were assessed at 16 and 23 years on measures of emotional and behavioural problems, with cognitive inflexibility, restricted and repetitive behaviours and verbal intelligence quotient measured at 16 years. We used structural equation modelling to investigate the relationship between cognitive inflexibility and emotional and behavioural symptoms at both timepoints while accounting for the severity of restricted and repetitive behaviours and verbal intelligence quotient. Our results indicate an effect of cognitive inflexibility on increased behavioural problems at 16 years and emotional problems across timepoints, which is distinct from restricted and repetitive behaviours and verbal intelligence quotient. Exploratory mediation analyses suggest that cognitive inflexibility may be one mechanism through which emotional difficulties are maintained longitudinally. Lay abstract: Autistic people experience high levels of co-occurring mental health difficulties. To develop more effective treatments, a greater understanding of the thinking processes that may lead to these difficulties is needed. Cognitive inflexibility, defined as a rigid pattern of thoughts and subsequently behaviours, is one possible thinking trait which has previously been associated with both co-occurring mental health difficulties but also other features of autism such as restricted and repetitive behaviours. Restricted and repetitive behaviours include repetitive movements, ritualistic behaviours, and/or highly focused interests. This study investigates the relationship between, cognitive inflexibility, measured using neuropsychological tasks, and emotional and behavioural problems across adolescence and early adulthood. Eighty-one autistic people who were recruited to be representative of the wider autism population were assessed at 16 and 23 years on measures of emotional and behavioural problems, with cognitive inflexibility, restricted and repetitive behaviours and verbal intelligence measured at 16 years. We used statistical modelling to investigate the relationship between cognitive inflexibility and emotional and behavioural symptoms at both timepoints while accounting for the possible relationship with restricted and repetitive behaviours and verbal intelligence quotient. Our results suggest that cognitive inflexibility may be an important factor associated with emotional difficulties across adolescence and early adulthood. This suggests that developing intervention approaches targeting cognitive inflexibility may be an important step in improving the mental health of those with autism.

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