Research published in Mindfulness suggests that for those with autistic-like traits, cultivating dispositional mindfulness may reduce repetitive negative thoughts and consequently decrease the likelihood that they will experience anxiety or depression. These findings suggest that helping people with autistic-like traits be more mindful may be a beneficial therapy.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication, behavior, and interests. Autistic traits are found across the general population, ranging from mild to severe, with clinical autism representing the extreme end of the spectrum. Researchers have been studying nonclinical adults with varying degrees of autistic-like traits to better understand autism spectrum conditions.
Individuals with ASD often experience co-occurring mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Repetitive negative thinking (RNT) has been identified as a risk factor for developing these affective symptoms. Dispositional mindfulness, defined as the tendency to be aware of and accept present-moment experiences, has been shown to have a protective effect against anxiety and depression. However, little is known about the role of dispositional mindfulness in individuals with ASD.
In their new study, Isa Zappullo and colleagues aimed to investigate the relationship between dispositional mindfulness, RNT, and affective symptoms in individuals with different autistic-like traits. The study hypothesized that dispositional mindfulness would have a protective effect against anxiety-related concerns and depression symptoms through its impact on RNT.
A sample of 209 neurotypical adults completed self-report measures assessing their autistic-like traits, dispositional mindfulness, RNT, anxiety-related concerns, and depression symptoms. Autistic-like traits were measured using the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ), and dispositional mindfulness was measured using the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ).
RNT was measured using the Perseverative Thinking Questionnaire (PTQ), which assesses repetitive negative thoughts across three domains: rumination about past events or mistakes, worry about future events or potential problems, and intrusive thoughts or images.
The results showed that higher levels of attention-switching and communication difficulties were associated with lower levels of dispositional mindfulness. Dispositional mindfulness was found to have a protective effect against anxiety-related concerns and depression symptoms through its impact on RNT.
Specifically, dispositional mindfulness was negatively associated with RNT, which in turn was positively associated with anxiety-related concerns and depression symptoms. Interestingly those who reported high attention-to-detail autistic-like traits were not as protected when the individual engaged in more disposition mindfulness.
The study shows that switching focus easily is critical in handling mood and emotion issues in folks with autistic traits. People with autism who find it tough to change focus or communicate well tend to have less “mindfulness” naturally, making them more prone to stuck in their thoughts and feelings.
For individuals with autistic-like symptoms, dispositional mindfulness seems to guard against anxiety, worries, and feeling down by influencing this rumination. This suggests that teaching mindfulness might be an important therapeutic tool for those with autism who struggle with overthinking and mood.
The study also highlights the importance of considering specific autistic-like traits when examining the relationship between dispositional mindfulness, RNT, and affective symptoms. Attention-to-detail autistic-like traits were found to bypass dispositional mindfulness in the pathways linking RNT and affective symptoms. This suggests that attention to detail may be a unique risk factor for developing affective symptoms in individuals with ASD.
The research team acknowledged some limitations to their study. First, all participants were psychology students. This sample of students may not be representative of those with autistic-like symptoms as previous research has indicated that individuals with autism may gravitate more toward certain areas of study like computer science or mathematics.
Second, the study was correlational, making cause-and-effect conclusions impossible. The research team suggests future studies consider experimental design, like teaching mindfulness skills to those with autism and assessing any differences in mood.
Despite these considerations, the study’s findings provide evidence that for those with autistic-like symptoms, dispositional mindfulness may be one method to help battle against anxiety and depression.
The study, “The role of dispositional mindfulness in the impact of repetitive negative thinking on anxiety and depression in people with different autistic‐like traits,” was authored by Isa Zappullo, Vincenzo, Paolo Senese, Roberta Cecere, Gennaro Raimo, Chiara Baiano, Anna Lauro, and Massimiliano Conson