Current and lifetime somatic symptom burden among transition-aged autistic young adults

Zachary J. Williams, Katherine O. Gotham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Somatic symptoms are the most common cause of outpatient medical visits in the general population, yet their presence and severity in individuals on the autism spectrum has rarely been studied. We sought to assess the prevalence, impact, and clinical correlates of 14 commonly reported somatic symptoms in a sample of 290 transition-aged autistic young adults (mean [SD] age: 23.10 [2.38] years, range 18–26; 76.7% diagnosed with autism before age 18) recruited from the Simons Foundation SPARK participant pool. A modified version of the Patient Health Questionnaire–15 was used to assess somatic symptom prevalence/impact, along with measures of depression, anxiety, autistic traits, and quality of life. Somatic symptom burden was much higher in autistic young adults than previously reported in the general population. The most commonly reported current symptoms were fatigue (72.8%), sleep problems (69.0%), and menstrual problems (61.4% of females). Moderate or severe symptom levels were reported by 53.9% of females and 18.75% of males in our cohort, with the odds of females endorsing any given symptom being 2–4 times greater than males. Both individual symptoms and total symptom burden were related to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and autistic traits, along with lower quality of life. Despite little research on this topic previously, somatic symptoms are highly prevalent in autistic young adults, particularly women. Future research is needed to investigate links between somatic symptoms, medical and psychiatric morbidity, and health care utilization in the autistic population. Lay Summary: Somatic symptoms (i.e., physical symptoms such as such as pain, weakness, stomachache, or shortness of breath) are highly prevalent in the general population and account for a large proportion of health care costs. However, few studies have investigated how often these symptoms are reported by autistic adults or their associations with other clinical and demographic variables. Based on self-report data from 290 young autistic adults, we found very high rates of bothersome somatic symptoms in this population, with females endorsing all symptoms at substantially higher rates than males. Somatic symptoms were also associated with worse mental health and quality of life, suggesting that they represent an overlooked contributor to poor health outcomes in the autistic adult population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)761-770
Number of pages10
JournalAutism Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


Dive into the research topics of 'Current and lifetime somatic symptom burden among transition-aged autistic young adults'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this