We're proud to be supporting the next generation of autism researchers. Dr Becky Lawson at the University of Cambridge is one of our first Future Leaders: innovative autism researchers at the start of their careers.

Dr Lawson is a neuroscientist investigating how autistic people tolerate uncertainty in their everyday lives. She believes autistic people's brains have particularly strong, often negative, reactions to different types of uncertainty. These are

  • random unpredictable events
  • a tendency to believe that the sensory environment is unstable

This intolerance of uncertainty, as it is called, could explain the high rates of anxiety experienced by autistic people.

Using cutting-edge computer-based techniques to measure how autistic and non-autistic adults estimate, learn about and respond to different types of uncertainty, Dr Lawson hopes to reveal how sensory sensitivities and anxiety are linked in autism. This ground-breaking study will unpick the unique aspects of anxiety in autism and could lead to the development of evidence-based and autism-specific anxiety treatments.

Explaining the need for this project

Autistic people can find everyday situations particularly unpredictable leading to high levels of anxiety. The impact on their quality of life can be huge, leaving them isolated and frustrated.

Understanding how the brain processes uncertainty and identifying any differences between autistic and non-autistic people could pave the way for new evidence-based treatments for those living with anxiety. We don't yet know whether anxiety in autism is actually distinct from anxiety in non-autistic people and this research seeks to plug that knowledge gap.

New advances in using computers to study how the brain works have shown that we constantly estimate different types of uncertainty in everyday life and use this information to make predictions about the world around us. The processes in the brain that support these complex calculations could be different in autistic people and those with anxiety disorders to the general population.

The research process

The team in Cambridge are applying a mathematical approach to measuring intolerance of uncertainty and distinguishing different types of uncertainty. They hope to understand how these complex brain processes can cause anxiety in autistic adults and how this is different to anxiety in autistic children about which more is understood. The project will involve 160 adults across 4 groups:

  • autistic people with anxiety
  • autistic people without anxiety
  • people diagnosed with anxiety who are not autistic
  • people who have no history of neurodevelopment or mental health problems

Participants will be asked to complete learning tasks in a laboratory and report their own stress and anxiety via a series of questionnaires. Researchers will also monitor physiological markers of anxiety, for example heart rate, and use eye-tracking to monitor sensory reactions.

How this project is making a difference

This is the first project to use this approach to address how individual differences in processing uncertainty can lead to anxiety in autism and in anxiety disorders. The team hope to generate the necessary evidence to recommend the development of autism-specific treatments (like CBT) and to guide healthcare professionals to help their autistic patients make better and more personalised choices about their anxiety management.

With involvement at the heart of the project, autistic people and their families will be able to shape the research and contribute to a set of evidence-based recommendations for treating and managing anxiety in their local area.