Individuals with autism appear to be more susceptible to other non-communicable health disorders


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Rew research has found that adults with autism report higher rates of various non-communicable medical conditions compared to those without autism. These increased rates of disorders spanned all major organ systems. The paper was published in Molecular Autism.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by difficulties in social communication and interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Symptoms typically appear in early childhood and can range from mild to severe. Common signs include challenges with understanding social cues, engaging in back-and-forth conversation, and making eye contact.

Current estimates suggest that 2.8% of children are diagnosed with autism by 8 years of age. Studies indicate that individuals with autism are at an increased risk of developing other physical and mental health conditions. These individuals also tend to have a shorter life expectancy. Some of these differences can be attributed to deaths from neurological problems (e.g., seizures) and suicide, but much remains unexplained.

Study author John H. Ward and his colleagues wanted to compare the long-term physical health of autistic and non-autistic individuals, taking into account a broad range of demographic variables and health risk factors such as smoking, alcohol use, and body mass index. They conducted an online survey.

Survey participants were 2,305 individuals above 16 years of age, with or without an autism diagnosis. The study authors recruited them via databases such as the Cambridge Autism Research Database (CARD) and Autistica’s Discover Network, social media, and autism charities and support groups. Of the participants, 1,129 were autistic and 1,176 were non-autistic. Their average age was 42 years.

Study participants completed a questionnaire developed by the study authors (the Autism and Physical Health Survey). This questionnaire asked about various demographic data and health risk factors (weight, smoking, alcohol use) and required them to report whether they had ever had any from an extensive list of physical health conditions. These conditions were grouped according to the organ systems they affected. The survey also requested participants to report medical history data about all first-degree biological relatives.

Results showed that physical health disorders in all organ systems were more common in individuals with autism than in non-autistic people. This difference remained even after accounting for age, sex, ethnicity, country of residence, education level, body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, and family medical history.

The only group of conditions where the difference was not clear was hematological and endocrine conditions. On the other hand, individuals with autism were 2-3 times more likely to suffer from gastrointestinal, rheumatological, neurological, and renal/hepatic conditions. These differences were present in all age groups.

“Our results suggest that there are greater risks of co-occurring physical health conditions and complex health needs across the lifespan among autistic people compared to non-autistic people. This may be due to biological contributors (e.g., genetic or hormonal) to risk of these physical health conditions and/or due to social/economic issues related to negative life experiences, stigma, as well as poorer self-reported healthcare quality. Importantly, no singular cause of the poorer physical health of autistic emerges from the existing literature or the present study,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on the links between autism and general risks for physical health. However, it also has limitations that need to be considered. Notably, the study was conducted on a convenient sample of participants that might not be representative of the general population. Additionally, all medical conditions were self-reported, and it remains unknown to what extent the observed differences are due to reporting bias.

The paper, “Increased rates of chronic physical health conditions across all organ systems in autistic adolescents and adults,” was authored by John H. Ward, Elizabeth Weir, Carrie Allison, and Simon Baron‑Cohen.



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