Sensorily stressed: an exploration of the relationship between anxiety and sensory reactivity in autistic people

Millington, Elliot (2024) Sensorily stressed: an exploration of the relationship between anxiety and sensory reactivity in autistic people. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Differences in sensory reactivity have been well documented in autistic people of all ages, with differences reported in all modalities, both interoceptive and exteroceptive. Autistic people have also been found to have higher trait anxiety and more diagnoses of anxiety-related disorders. Previous research has identified that more difficulties with sensory reactivity lead to the development of anxiety, with a variety of factors influencing that relationship. However, fewer studies have addressed whether greater anxiety can also lead to more difficulties with sensory reactivity. Four studies are presented in this thesis which address research questions associated with sensory reactivity which, when combined, may additionally offer some insight into the directionality of the anxiety and sensory reactivity relationship. The first study of this thesis was a co-designed qualitative analysis of autistic accounts of sensory overload, which identified several themes about sensory overload, with implications for the everyday autistic experience. This included the identification of different processing stages with variable capacities and a circular relationship between the likelihood of sensory overload and anxiety. The second study described the construction and validation of a short version of the Glasgow Sensory Questionnaire, which was then used as a compact measure of sensory reactivity. For the third study, a general population sample and a neurodivergent sample were used to assess whether sensory reactivity was present across several neurodivergences, rather than just autism. The results identified that autistic and ADHD traits had a significant overlap, which was also represented in their individual relationships with sensory reactivity. The final study used Virtual Reality to experimentally influence state anxiety and a dual-task paradigm to measure participants’ perceptual capacities. This study’s results were not as expected, but improvements will be made to the procedure in future work. Overall, the findings of this thesis point toward anxiety having some effect on autistic peoples’ sensory reactivity, alongside sensory reactivity’s long-term impact on anxiety. These conclusions offer actionable insights for autistic people and those with influence over the sensory environment.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Psychology & Neuroscience
Funder's Name: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Supervisor's Name: Simmons, Dr. David
Date of Award: 2024
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2024-84280
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 01 May 2024 08:57
Last Modified: 01 May 2024 10:09
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.84280

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