Sleep problems and mental health difficulties in older adults who endorse high autistic traits

Gavin R. Stewart*, Anne Corbett, Clive Ballard, Byron Creese, Dag Aarsland, Adam Hampshire, Rebecca A. Charlton, Francesca Happé

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Sleep problems and mental health difficulties are common in autistic children and young adults. However, these problems have seldom been studied in older autistic adults, or in older adults with elevated autistic traits. Method: Cross-sectional data was examined from 13,897 adults aged 50–81 years taking part in the PROTECT study, who reported whether they experienced persistent socio-communicative autistic traits. Approximately 1%, 187 individuals, were identified as endorsing high autistic traits in childhood and currently, henceforth ‘Autism Spectrum Trait’ (AST) group. An age- and gender-matched comparison group was formed of 6740 individuals who endorsed no autistic traits, henceforth ‘Control Older Adults’ (COA) group. Differences between AST and COA groups were explored in self-reported sleep behaviors, and in depression and anxiety symptoms. Results: AST and COA groups reported similar sleep duration and depth, and nighttime waking frequency. However, the AST group reported significantly more problems with falling asleep, morning drowsiness, and lower sleep quality/satisfaction than COA. More AST adults reported sleep problems past cut-off, as well as clinical levels of depression and anxiety, compared to COA. Adults in both groups who met criteria for high sleep problems experienced more mental health difficulties than those with few sleep problems. However, even amongst those without depression/anxiety, the AST group reported more sleep problems than the COA. Conclusions: These associations suggest that older adults with high autistic traits, like diagnosed autistic children/young adults, may experience poorer sleep and more mental health difficulties than those with low autistic traits. Further work is needed to see whether these results extend to older individuals meeting diagnostic criteria for autism.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101633
JournalResearch in Autism Spectrum Disorders
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


  • Aging
  • Anxiety
  • ASD
  • Autistic traits
  • Depression
  • Mental health
  • Older adults
  • Sleep


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