Trajectories of internalizing symptoms among autistic and nonautistic youth during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic elicited increases in anxiety and depression in youth, and youth on the autism spectrum demonstrate elevations in such symptoms pre-pandemic. However, it is unclear whether autistic youth experienced similar increases in internalizing symptoms after the COVID-19 pandemic onset or whether decreases in these symptoms were present, as speculated in qualitative work. In the current study, longitudinal changes in anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic in autistic youth were assessed in comparison to nonautistic youth. A well-characterized sample of 51 autistic and 25 nonautistic youth (ageM = 12.8, range = 8.5-17.4 years, IQ > 70) and their parents completed the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS), a measure of internalizing symptoms, repeatedly, representing up to 7 measurement occasions from June to December 2020 (N ~ 419 occasions). Multilevel models were used to evaluate changes in internalizing symptoms over time. Internalizing symptoms did not differ between autistic and nonautistic youth in the summer of 2020. As reported by youth themselves, internalizing symptoms decreased in autistic youth, both overall and compared to nonautstic peers. This effect was driven by decreases in generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and depression symptoms in autistic youth. Reductions in generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and depression in autistic youth may be due to COVID-19 pandemic-specific differences in response to social, environmental, and contextual changes that unfolded in 2020. This highlights the importance of understanding unique protective and resilience factors that may be evident in autistic individuals in response to broad societal shifts such as those seen in response to COVID-19.
Keywords: adolescents; anxiety; co-morbid conditions; depression; longitudinal data analysis.