Autism and PTSD Are Vulnerably Linked

Summary: Individuals on the autism spectrum are particularly susceptible to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The research demonstrates that even mild stressors, which typically wouldn’t affect others, can trigger PTSD in those with autism, exacerbating core autistic traits like repetitive behavior.

The study pinpoints specific brain circuit alterations in the prefrontal cortex responsible for this hypersensitivity. This research could revolutionize approaches to diagnosing and treating PTSD in individuals with autism, emphasizing the need for tailored therapeutic interventions.

Key Facts:

  1. Increased Sensitivity: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can develop PTSD from mild stressors, highlighting their heightened sensitivity to traumatic experiences.
  2. Brain Circuit Alterations: Researchers identified changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that contribute to increased stress sensitivity in ASD.
  3. Impact on Autism Traits: PTSD can aggravate the core traits of autism, such as repetitive behaviors, necessitating specialized treatment strategies.

Source: Australian National University

People on the autism spectrum are predisposed to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a new study from The Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Queensland has shown. 

The research also found PTSD can lead to the aggravation of core traits of autism such as repetitive behaviour, 

The study showed that while generally PTSD is triggered by an extreme stress, a single mild stress can be enough to produce a traumatic memory in those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

This shows a sad child.
“While heightened sensitivity to stress and trauma has been a rising concern in ASD, the consequences have been largely overlooked until now,” Dr Dehorter said. Credit: Neuroscience News

Senior author Dr Nathalie Dehorter said the study — conducted on mice — was able to pinpoint the mechanisms in the brain that might be responsible for this occurrence.  

“While heightened sensitivity to stress and trauma has been a rising concern in ASD, the consequences have been largely overlooked until now,” Dr Dehorter said. 

“We were able to show the specific brain circuit alteration that’s underlying the hypersensitivity to stress in ASD. We know what’s happening at the cellular and at the structural level in the prefrontal cortex.” 

Lead author on the study, Dr Shaam Al Abed, said: “Understanding this hypersensitivity is crucial to treating those traumatic memories with the right behavioural therapy. By recontextualising the traumatic memory, we can hopefully alleviate the worsening of those core traits.”  

Dr Al Abed said the results could help both clinicians and people on the autism spectrum.  

“PTSD in autism is currently challenging to diagnose,” she said.  

“If we can understand a bit more about the underlying mechanisms, it will go a long way to making sure people are managing their symptoms appropriately.”  

According to the researchers, the study also supports the idea that everyday life situations — like entering a particularly noisy or unfamiliar environment — can be experienced as traumatic by neurodivergent populations. 

The study calls for better awareness of PTSD in autism, to allow for efficient intervention for those more likely to experience trauma.  

“Timely detection appears to be essential, especially if PTSD can worsen the core ASD traits,” Dr Dehorter said.  

“We need more research into the overlap between these two conditions.”  

About this PTSD and Autism research news

Author: Jessica Fagan
Source: Australian National University
Contact: Jessica Fagan – Australian National University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Parvalbumin interneuron activity in autism underlies susceptibility to PTSD-like memory formation” by Nathalie Dehorter et al. iScience


Parvalbumin interneuron activity in autism underlies susceptibility to PTSD-like memory formation


  • This study demonstrates a reciprocal relationship between ASD and PTSD-like memory
  • Recontextualization constitutes a behavioral strategy to treat PTSD-related amnesia
  • Recontextualization rescues PTSD-like memory in ASD and aggravation of core traits
  • Prefrontal parvalbumin interneurons are a target to treat PTSD-like memory in ASD


A rising concern in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the heightened sensitivity to trauma, the potential consequences of which have been overlooked, particularly upon the severity of the ASD traits.

We first demonstrate a reciprocal relationship between ASD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and reveal that exposure to a mildly stressful event induces PTSD-like memory in four mouse models of ASD.

We also establish an unanticipated consequence of stress, as the formation of PTSD-like memory leads to the aggravation of core autistic traits.

Such a susceptibility to developing PTSD-like memory in ASD stems from hyperactivation of the prefrontal cortex and altered fine-tuning of parvalbumin interneuron firing.

Traumatic memory can be treated by recontextualization, reducing the deleterious effects on the core symptoms of ASD in the Cntnap2 KO mouse model.

This study provides a neurobiological and psychological framework for future examination of the impact of PTSD-like memory in autism.

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