Everyday Sources of Happiness and Unhappiness in Autistic Adults

Purpose: Daily mood can be influenced by a range of experiences. Identifying everyday life experiences that make autistic adults happy and unhappy holds potential to foster positive mood and tackle mental health problems amongst this group.

Methods: A total of 293 autistic adults between the ages of 18 to 35 years old (mean age of 26.51 years old (SD = 4.62); 43.3% female gender, 4.8% nonbinary) provided open-text responses regarding everyday sources of happiness and unhappiness. Using an iterative process of inductive coding, 14 happy themes and 22 unhappy themes of mood-changing life experiences were identified based on self-report qualitative data.

Results: Common themes across the happy and unhappy domain involved social partners, social interactions, and engagement in recreational and employment activities, with additional distinct themes specific to happy or unhappy mood. Top themes identified in the happy domain emphasizes encouraging quality relationships and positive interactions with others and cultivating supportive work/societal environments to build a sense of achievement and value. Meanwhile, emotional tolls accompanied negative relationships and interactions, underscoring the necessity to provide autistic adults with conflict resolution and coping skills to increase feelings of happiness.

Conclusion: Overall, the wide range of sources of happy and unhappy everyday experiences highlights the importance of considering personal preferences in engagement with others and activities in treatment.

Keywords: Adulthood; Autism; Daily life experiences; Happiness; Mood; Qualitative study.


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.

Eye tracking has long been used to characterize differences in social attention between autistic and non-autistic children, but recent work has shown that these patterns may vary widely according to the biological sex of the participants and the social complexity and gender-typicality of the eye tracking stimuli (e.g., barbies vs. transformers). To better understand effects of sex, social complexity, and object gender-typicality on social and non-social gaze behavior in autism, we compared the visual attention patterns of 67 autistic (ASD) and non-autistic (NA) males (M) and females (F) (ASD M = 21; ASD F = 18; NA M = 14; NA F = 14) across four eye tracking paradigms varying in social complexity and object gender-typicality. We found consistency across paradigms in terms of overall attention and attention to social stimuli, but attention to objects varied when paradigms considered gender in their stimulus design. Children attended more to gendered objects, particularly when the gender-typicality of the object matched their assigned sex. These results demonstrate that visual social attention in autism is affected by interactions between a child’s biological sex, social scene complexity, and object gender-typicality and have broad implications for the design and interpretation of eye tracking studies.

Keywords: attention; eye movement; gender/female ASD; sex differences.

What do anxiety, prevalence, ketamine, other neurodevelopmental disorders, siblings, genetics, brain imaging and the autistic researcher committee at INSAR all have in common? They were all topics at the last Day of Learning. You can hear a 20 minute summary of the talks on this week’s ASFpodcast.

TikTok is overtaking the internet and many are using this platform to learn about a variety of psychiatric illnesses and psychological problems. But how accurate are these videos in sharing medical information? Could they be causing things like tics? Do they influence individuals to self-diagnose and cause mis-diagnosis? There is a new phenomenon labeled “munchausen by internet”, and while some of the videos might be helpful in raising awareness, others are just spreading lies and causing psychiatric problems. In other words: be careful about TikTok. If a social media platform shares videos that tell you to eat laundry detergent, maybe you should not listen to everything they say. Listen to this week’s podcast here.



People tend to go towards a “strengths only” or “weaknesses only” approach to describing autism. But even if you think about a single aspect of autistic challenges – social communication – autistics can show both. How can you measure this, and even more importantly, document it to play to someone’s strengths while addressing their impairments at the same time? Special guests Dr. Matthew Lerner and Jacquelyn Gates from Stony Brook University explain how this can be done by clinicians in our latest podcast.


Stressful life events, among other things, affect autistics more than those who are typically developing. Why? What would cause this vulnerability? New studies suggest that cognitive inflexibility may be the key. Autistic people tend to have problems with cognitive flexibility. As a whole, they show problems with flexible thinking, changing direction and being adaptable to new situations. This is clearly tied to insistence on sameness, a core feature of ASD. Can anything help? Research needs to look at the link between improving cognitive flexibility and mental health, but in the meantime, there are things that can be done to improve skills in this area. Check out a few below, and listen to the podcast here.




Children’s ability to share attention with another person (i.e., achieve joint attention) is critical for learning about their environments in general1-3 and supporting language and object word learning in particular.1,4-14 While joint attention (JA) as it pertains to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often more narrowly operationalized as arising from eye gaze or explicit pointing cues alone,2,5,10,15-19 recent evidence demonstrates that JA in natural environments can be achieved more broadly through multiple other pathways beyond gaze and gestures.2,4,20-31 Here, we use dual head-mounted eye tracking to examine pathways into and characteristics of JA episodes during free-flowing parent-child toy play, comparing children with ASD to typically developing (TD) children. Moments of JA were defined objectively as both the child’s and parent’s gaze directed to the same object at the same time. Consistent with previous work in TD children,4,21,25,30-32 we found that both TD and ASD children rarely look at their parent’s face in this unstructured free play context. Nevertheless, both groups achieved similarly high rates of JA that far exceeded chance, suggesting the use of alternative pathways into JA. We characterize these alternate pathways, find they occur at similar levels across both groups, and achieve similar ends: namely, for both groups, targets of JA are named more frequently by parents in those moments than non-jointly attended objects. These findings broaden the conceptualization of JA abilities and impairment in ASD and raise questions regarding the mechanistic role of the face-gaze-mediated JA pathway in ASD.

Keywords: autism; development; dyadic interaction; eye tracking; joint attention; naturalistic play; social interaction.

Competitive interactions have a vital role in the ecology of most animal species1-3 and powerfully influence the behaviour of groups4,5. To succeed, individuals must exert effort based on not only the resources available but also the social rank and behaviour of other group members2,6,7. The single-cellular mechanisms that precisely drive competitive interactions or the behaviour of social groups, however, remain poorly understood. Here we developed a naturalistic group paradigm in which large cohorts of mice competitively foraged for food as we wirelessly tracked neuronal activities across thousands of unique interactions. By following the collective behaviour of the groups, we found neurons in the anterior cingulate that adaptively represented the social rank of the animals in relation to others. Although social rank was closely behaviourally linked to success, these cells disambiguated the relative rank of the mice from their competitive behaviour, and incorporated information about the resources available, the environment, and past success of the mice to influence their decisions. Using multiclass models, we show how these neurons tracked other individuals within the group and accurately predicted upcoming success. Using neuromodulation techniques, we also show how the neurons conditionally influenced competitive effort-increasing the effort of the animals only when they were more dominant to their groupmates and decreasing it when they were subordinate-effects that were not observed in other frontal lobe areas. Together, these findings reveal cingulate neurons that serve to adaptively drive competitive interactions and a putative process that could intermediate the social and economic behaviour of groups.

Autistic individuals are at an increased risk for both sleep disturbances and depression. While studies in the general population and in autistic adults have drawn general links between sleep disturbances and mental health, few studies have examined the extent to which specific sleep problems may be implicated in the extremely high rates of depression among autistic adults. This study aimed to describe the patterns of sleep disturbances in autistic young adults, and their associations with depressive symptoms while controlling for relevant demographic factors. A sample of 304 legally independent adults (age 18-35 years old) with a childhood diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder self-reported on their average sleep behaviors during the past week and depressive symptoms on the Beck Depressive Inventory-II. A significant proportion (86.01%) of autistic young adults experienced at least one of the primary sleep disturbances of interest, including short total sleep time (39.59%), poor sleep efficiency (60.07%), and delayed sleep phase (36.18%). Additionally, lower sleep efficiency and delayed sleep phase were both associated with higher depressive symptoms. The associations between sleep and depressive symptoms identified in our study suggest that sleep treatments may hold potential for ameliorating depressive symptoms in autistic adults who also experience sleep problems. Further research using daily sleep diaries and objective measures of sleep behaviors, as well as longitudinal studies, are needed to understand how changes in sleep may relate to changes in depressive symptoms in autistic adults.

Keywords: delayed phase; depression; sleep; sleep efficiency; young adults.

Group social skills interventions (GSSIs) are among the most commonly used treatments for improving social competence in youth with ASD, however, results remain variable. The current study examined predictors of treatment response to an empirically-supported GSSI for youth with ASD delivered in the community (Ntotal=75). Participants completed a computer-based emotion recognition task and their parents completed measures of broad psychopathology, ASD symptomatology, and social skills. We utilized generalized estimating equations in an ANCOVA-of-change framework to account for nesting. Results indicate differential improvements in emotion recognition by sex as well as ADHD-specific improvements in adaptive functioning. Youth with both co-occurring anxiety and ADHD experienced iatrogenic effects, suggesting that SDARI may be most effective for youth with ASD without multiple co-occurring issues. Findings provide important directions for addressing variability in treatment outcomes for youth with ASD.

Keywords: ASD; Community; GSSI; Intervention; Social Skills; Treatment predictors.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at elevated risk of suicidal ideation, particularly those with comorbid anxiety disorders and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). We investigated the risk factors associated with suicidal ideation in 166 children with ASD and comorbid anxiety disorders/OCD, and the unique contribution of externalizing behaviors. Suicidal ideation was reported in the child sample by 13% of parents. Controlling for child age, sex, and IQ, perceived loneliness positively predicted the likelihood of suicidal ideation. In addition, externalizing behaviors positively predicted suicidal ideation, controlling for all other factors. Reliance on parental report to detect suicidal ideation in youth with ASD is a limitation of this study. Nonetheless, these findings highlight the importance of assessing and addressing suicidal ideation in children with ASD and comorbid anxiety disorders/OCD, and more importantly in those with elevated externalizing behaviors and perceptions of loneliness.

Keywords: ASD; Anxiety; Externalizing behaviors; OCD; Suicidal thoughts.