I recently joined the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre as a CRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow to work with Associate Professor Amanda Richdale on a project that aims to identify and describe the comprehensive and unique profiles of Australian school leavers with ASD. This project also aims to investigate well-being of parents of school leavers with ASD.
After finishing in medicine in my hometown university (School of Medicine, University of Nis, Serbia) I then moved to Cardiff to do my PhD, under the supervision of Professor Sue Leekam at the wonderful Wales Autism Research Centre.
The first part of my PhD project looked at repetitive behaviours and how these behaviours are related to sensory problems and anxiety in children and adolescents with ASD. Repetitive and restricted behaviours have been considered as a core symptom of autism since the first descriptions provided by Leo Kanner (Kanner, 1943) and Hans Asperger (Asperger, 1944), and this view has been supported through all the incarnations of international diagnostic systems. However, when compared with other core features repetitive behaviours have been relatively neglected in terms of research despite the fact that these behaviours can create significant difficulties for individuals with ASD and their families.
Our results showed that, as expected, sensory problems and anxiety were very common in children and adolescents with autism. Almost all children were affected by a range of sensations, including visual and auditory sensations, touch and smell. In general, children with ASD tended to show increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli although some children exhibit reduced sensitivity. Others have what is called sensory seeking behaviours – they actively seek sensory stimuli such as flickering lights or touching certain fabrics and smelly things. Sensory problems and anxiety were linked. That is, increased sensory sensitivity tends to go together with increased anxiety in children with ASD. In addition both of these issues were associated with increased repetitive behaviours. Interestingly, not all types of repetitive behaviour seemed to be linked with sensory issues and anxiety. Both insistence on sameness behaviours and repetitive motor behaviours were associated with sensory problems. However, only insistence-on-sameness behaviours were associated with anxiety (while repetitive motor behaviours were not). Furthermore, we found that sensory sensitivity and anxiety reinforced each other in the relationship with insistence-on-sameness behaviours.
The second aim in my PhD project was to explore the correlates of anxiety in mothers of children with autism. Our findings suggested that anxiety is very prevalent these with 46% having elevated anxiety. For the first time, sensory problems in mothers were examined, and were also found to be very prevalent, appearing in 60% per cent of mothers. Sensory problems in mothers, together with some other personal characteristics such as intolerance of uncertainty and certain types of coping were associated with their increased risk for developing anxiety.
My other research interests include looking at temperament and emotion regulation across various neurodevelopmental and psychiatric conditions. I am particularly interested in the nature of emotional competence in autism spectrum disorder i.e. how people with autism attend to and recognize emotions, the way they use emotional information to guide their behaviour and anticipate others’ responses and whether they have adequately developed emotional concepts.