Autistic people are more likely to have mental and physical conditions

Changes to the amygdala may cause anxiety in people with autism
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New research by the University of Cambridge discovers that autistic people are more likely to have chronic mental and physical health conditions.

University of Cambridge researchers have found that autistic people are more likely to have chronic mental and physical health conditions whilst experiencing lower quality healthcare than others. This research highlights the importance of improving healthcare services and support for autistic people.

Dr Elizabeth Weir, a postdoctoral scientist at the ARC in Cambridge, and the lead researcher of the study, said: “This study should sound the alarm to healthcare professionals that their autistic patients are experiencing high rates of chronic conditions alongside difficulties with accessing healthcare. Current healthcare systems are failing to meet very fundamental needs of autistic people.”

The findings were published in Molecular Autism.

Assessing mental and physical health conditions in autistic people

A team at the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge conducted the largest study to date to uncover the current state of healthcare for autistic people and other conditions they may possess. An anonymous, self-report survey was used to compare the experiences of 1,285 autistic people to 1,364 non-autistic individuals from 79 different countries. 54% of participants were from the UK. The survey assessed rates of mental and physical health conditions, and the quality of healthcare experiences.

Lower quality healthcare and higher prevalence of mental and physical conditions

The researchers found that autistic people self-reported lower quality healthcare than others across 50 out of 51 items on the survey. Autistic people were far less likely to say that they could describe how their symptoms felt in their body, describe their pain levels, explain their symptoms and understand what their healthcare professional meant when they discussed their health. Furthermore, they were less likely to understand what was expected of them when they saw a healthcare professional and to feel they were provided with appropriate support after receiving a diagnosis of any kind.

The researchers also found that autistic people were:

  • Over seven times more likely to report that their senses frequently overwhelm them, leaving them unfocussed on conversations with healthcare professionals;
  • Three times more likely to leave their healthcare professional’s office feeling like they did not receive any help;
  • Four times more likely to report experiencing shutdowns or meltdowns due to a common healthcare scenario like setting up an appointment.

The team developed a ‘health inequality score’ and used novel data analytic methods, including machine learning. Differences in healthcare experiences were stark: the models could predict whether or not a participant was autistic with 72% accuracy based only on their ‘health inequality score’.

The study found high rates of chronic and physical health conditions such as insomnia, personality disorders, anorexia and arthritis.

Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the ARC and a member of the team, said: “This study is an important step forward in understanding the issues that autistic adults are facing in relation to their health and health care, but much more research is needed. We need more research on long-term outcomes of autistic people and how their health and healthcare can be improved. Clinical service providers need to ask autistic people what they need and then meet these needs.”

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