Investigating the structure of trait rumination in autistic adults: A network analysis

Zachary J. Williams, Erin E. McKenney, Katherine O. Gotham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rumination, a form of passive, repetitive negative thinking, predicts the development of depressive disorders in non-autistic individuals, and recent work suggests higher levels of rumination may contribute to elevated rates of depression in the autistic population. Using psychological network analysis, this study sought to investigate the structure of rumination in autistic individuals and the relationships between rumination and individual depressive symptoms. Non-regularized partial correlation networks were estimated using cross-sectional data from 608 autistic adults who completed the Ruminative Responses Scale and Beck Depression Inventory–II. Node centrality indices were calculated to determine which specific symptoms may have a disproportionate influence on the network of repetitive negative thoughts. Nodes were also grouped into communities, and specific “bridge” nodes were identified that most strongly connected these different communities. Results demonstrated strong positive relationships between all facets of ruminative thinking, similar to a prior study in non-autistic adults. Self-directed negative cognitions appeared to be particularly central in this network. The depression symptoms most strongly related to rumination in autistic adults were sadness and guilt. Although these findings are preliminary, they highlight specific facets of rumination that warrant future study as depression risk factors and potential intervention targets in the autistic population. Lay abstract: Autistic adults are substantially more likely to develop depression than individuals in the general population, and recent research has indicated that certain differences in thinking styles associated with autism may play a role in this association. Rumination, the act of thinking about the same thing over and over without a functional outcome, is a significant risk factor for depression in both autistic and non-autistic adults. However, little is known about how different kinds of rumination relate to each other and to depressive symptoms in the autistic population specifically. To fill this gap in knowledge, we recruited a large online sample of autistic adults, who completed questionnaire measures of both the tendency to ruminate and symptoms of depression. By examining the interacting network of rumination and depression symptoms, this study was able to identify particular aspects of rumination—such as thinking repetitively about one’s guilty feelings or criticizing oneself—that may be particularly important in maintaining these harmful thought patterns in autistic adults. Although further study is needed, it is possible that the symptoms identified as most “influential” in the network may be particularly good targets for future interventions for mood and anxiety disorders in the autistic population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2048-2063
Number of pages16
Issue number7
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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