A new report released by a philanthropic group based in the United Kingdom has revealed that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) die decades younger than the rest of the population, but what causes it?
According to researchers from Autistica, several factors are driving the early deaths of people with autism, including the following: fatal accidents, epilepsy and suicide.
In fact, for patients with autism and learning disabilities who die 30 years ahead of their peers, epilepsy is the primary cause of death. Other neurological disorders are to blame as well, which suggests that the early disruption of neurodevelopment may be a culprit.
"Although intellectual disability is not a defining feature of autism, it does change socio-cognitive function, communication, and behavior," the charity said. As a result, it negatively affects neurodevelopmental outcomes in people with ASD and those with epilepsy, they added.
The Autistica report mentioned the research of psychologist Sven Bölte of Karolinksa Institute. Bölte said fatal accidents such as drowning are one of the "classic" reasons for premature death among people with ASD and intellectual difficulties.
Although there are "classic" reasons among autism patients with learning disabilities, these do not account for the difference in mortality among patients with and without intellectual deficiencies.
In 2015, Bölte and his colleagues published a large study that involved 27,000 Swedish people with ASD. About 6,500 of them had learning disabilities.
The research team found that the risk of dying early was 2.5 times higher for the entire group, which is largely due to respiratory disease and diabetes. Patients may have been diagnosed too late because they do not know how to express their concerns to doctors, the study said.
What was troubling was that adults with autism who do not have learning disabilities were nine times more likely to die by suicide. Researchers said women in particular were at higher risk of taking their own life. Bölte speculates it could be a reflection of the depression and isolation many high-functioning people with autism experience.
Meanwhile, Autistica called for immediate and urgent action by the UK's National Health Service to address the issues.
"We cannot accept a situation where many autistic people will never see their 40th birthday," said Autistica Chief Executive Jon Spiers in a recent press release [PDF].
Additionally, the charity announced that it will raise £10 million ($14 million) to fund its own research.
Photo : Becky Wetherington | Flickr