Improving the measurement of alexithymia in autistic adults: a psychometric investigation of the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale and generation of a general alexithymia factor score using item response theory

Zachary J. Williams, Katherine O. Gotham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations

Abstract

Background: Alexithymia, a personality trait characterized by difficulties interpreting emotional states, is commonly elevated in autistic adults, and a growing body of literature suggests that this trait underlies several cognitive and emotional differences previously attributed to autism. Although questionnaires such as the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) are frequently used to measure alexithymia in the autistic population, few studies have investigated the psychometric properties of these questionnaires in autistic adults, including whether differential item functioning (I-DIF) exists between autistic and general population adults. Methods: This study is a revised version of a previous article that was retracted due to copyright concerns (Williams and Gotham in Mol Autism 12:1–40). We conducted an in-depth psychometric analysis of the TAS-20 in a large sample of 743 cognitively able autistic adults recruited from the Simons Foundation SPARK participant pool and 721 general population controls enrolled in a large international psychological study. The factor structure of the TAS-20 was examined using confirmatory factor analysis, and item response theory was used to generate a subset of the items that were strong indicators of a “general alexithymia” factor. Correlations between alexithymia and other clinical outcomes were used to assess the nomological validity of the new alexithymia score in the SPARK sample. Results: The TAS-20 did not exhibit adequate model fit in either the autistic or general population samples. Empirically driven item reduction was undertaken, resulting in an 8-item general alexithymia factor score (GAFS-8, with “TAS” no longer referenced due to copyright) with sound psychometric properties and practically ignorable I-DIF between diagnostic groups. Correlational analyses indicated that GAFS-8 scores, as derived from the TAS-20, meaningfully predict autistic trait levels, repetitive behaviors, and depression symptoms, even after controlling for trait neuroticism. The GAFS-8 also presented no meaningful decrement in nomological validity over the full TAS-20 in autistic participants. Limitations: Limitations of the current study include a sample of autistic adults that was majority female, later diagnosed, and well educated; clinical and control groups drawn from different studies with variable measures; only 16 of the TAS-20 items being administered to the non-autistic sample; and an inability to test several other important psychometric characteristics of the GAFS-8, including sensitivity to change and I-DIF across multiple administrations. Conclusions: These results indicate the potential of the GAFS-8 to robustly measure alexithymia in both autistic and non-autistic adults. A free online score calculator has been created to facilitate the use of norm-referenced GAFS-8 latent trait scores in research applications (available at https://asdmeasures.shinyapps.io/alexithymia).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number56
JournalMolecular Autism
Volume12
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Developmental Biology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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