Autism Spectrum Disorder and Migraines
Dr Shelley Hyman
Migraine headaches are a common neurological condition in which individuals experience recurrent unilateral throbbing headaches, which are associated with increased pain sensitivity, photophobia, and increased reactivity to other various sensory inputs.
Between migraines individuals who experience them may also show increased sensitivity to pain and decreased sensory habituation. In the general population migraine headaches are associated with sensory hyperactivity and anxiety. However, it is unknown whether this is the case in autism spectrum disorders.
An atypical relationship has been established between a large number of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their environment.
Children with ASD often exhibit hyperactivity to the sensory qualities of their environment and been overwhelmed by benign sensory stimuli, while others exhibit complete disregard to even alarming stimuli. Interestingly a link has been established between both ASD and migraine pathology, and anxiety.
A significant subgroup of individuals with ASD present with anxiety disorders or high levels of anxiety traits, the presence of which is associated with or possibly even caused by hyperreactivity.
In regards to migraineurs, high rates of anxiety and mood disorders as well as internalising and anxiety-related traits are also observed. Therefore, both ASD and migraine headaches have been linked with anxiety and sensory reactivity differences.
A study conducted by Sullivan and colleagues (2014) had parents of children with ASD complete an online survey about their child. The survey measured the children’s generalised anxiety, sensory over-responsitivity and sensory processing.
This included measures of tactile, auditory, visual, gustatory, olfactory and movement stimuli that bother the child. The child’s migraine presence was also assessed in regards to frequency.
Parent’s also were required to report if their child had any comorbid disorders, including ADHD, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dyspraxia or movement disorder, language disorder, cognitive delay, conduct defiance disorder, seizure disorder, depression, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome and bipolar.
Sullivan and his colleagues (2014) established that there was a significant link between the presence of migraines in ASD and sensory hyperactivity in the children.
The findings also support that there may be a connection between sensory hyperactivity and anxiety symptomatology in ASD, as there was a relationship found between the children’s hyperactivity and parent-reported anxiety symptomatology.
Overall, this suggests that autistic children who are overreactive to sensory input may also be likely to show anxiety behaviours and experience migraine headaches. However, the findings of this study should be regarded as preliminary.
- Sullivan, J. C., Miller, L. J., Nielsen, D. M., & Schoen, S. A. (2013). The presence of migraines and its association with sensory hyperreactivity and anxiety symptomatology in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 1362361313489377.