Health Care and Autism | Organization for Autism Research

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Three recent studies highlighted in the news have focused on healthcare and autism, with implications for autistic adults, young adults, and children.


Chronic Physical Health Conditions

A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, found that adults with autism are more likely than others to have chronic physical health conditions that do not appear to be due to lifestyle factors.

According to an article posted on the university website, the study, which was published in Autism, indicates that autistic individuals are, on average, 1.5 to 4.3 times more likely than other adults to have low blood pressure, arrhythmias, asthma, and prediabetes, among other health conditions. Additionally, the study found that smoking, alcohol, and body mass index (BMI) are not responsible for the higher risk of those health conditions.

In a related Disability Scoop article, the researchers explained that even within the population of autistic adults, health conditions varied. For example, while autistic women are four times more likely than nonautistic women to have prediabetes, autistic and nonautistic men have the same chances of having the condition. The results also revealed that autistic women are more likely than autistic men to report overall increased risks of physical health conditions.

Elizabeth Weir, the PhD student who led the study, further noted in the Disability Scoop article that other biological, environmental, lifestyle or health care factors could be behind the increased risk seen in those with autism.

The research team used an anonymous online survey to gather responses from 1,156 autistic adults and 1,212 nonautistic adults above the age of 16 about their lifestyle choices and daily habits and personal and family medical history.

“This new study highlights the physical health risks to autistic individuals, and has important implications for their health care,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and one of the researchers who worked on the study. “Understanding the reasons why these disparities exist will allow us to better support autistic individuals and improve the quality and length of their lives.”


Health Care Transition Readiness Assessment

A University of Missouri researcher, Nancy Cheak-Zamora, recently created a health care transition readiness assessment that can help autistic young people take charge of their healthcare. According to an article on the News Medical website, the assessment identifies skills adolescents need to transition from pediatric care to adult care and be able to manage their health appropriately.

Specifically, she found that autistic young adults need to better understand medication management, insurance policies, and health care finances and learn healthcare-related skills like scheduling doctor’s appointments and filling prescriptions. They also need more education about their sexual health and relationship needs. Cheak-Zamora partnered with five autism clinics around the United States and recruited 500 caregivers of autistic young adults for the study.

The results of a previous study she did found that autistic young adults were half as likely to receive health care transition services, such as learning how to schedule a doctor’s appointment or fill a prescription, compared to other young adults with special health care needs. Her assessment will allow them to meet those challenges, get the services they need, and build autonomy and independence. As she said in the News Medical article, “Successfully scheduling a doctor’s appointment can translate into more autonomous behavior in school or taking more ownership of chores at home.”


Using Hospital Visits to Identify Autism Early

In a third recent study, researchers found that hospital visits may help healthcare providers identify autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) even earlier, possibly improving outcomes and lowering healthcare costs, according to an article on the U.S. News & World Report website. 

A research team at Duke University used 10 years of data collected from the electronic health records of nearly 30,000 patients, primarily at Duke University Health System, who had at least two well-child visits before age one. They analyzed the patients’ first-year records for hospital admissions, procedures, emergency department visits, and outpatient clinical appointments. The patients included those later diagnosed with autism or ADHD, both, or neither.

They found that autistic children with ADHD go to the hospital more in their first year of life than other children. In fact, their births tended to result in longer hospital stays, noted an article on a Duke University website. Autistic children also had higher numbers of procedures, including intubation and ventilation, and more outpatient specialty care visits for services such as physical therapy and eye appointments. If pediatricians are aware of these possible signs in a child’s healthcare records they may be able to identify children who should be assessed. The Duke University website noted that the results of this study as well as other data could be used to create surveillance tools that can help both health care providers and parents identify the need for assessment.

In the Duke University article, study lead author Matthew Engelhard, M.D., Ph.D., a senior research associate, said that the study “provides evidence that children who develop autism and ADHD are on a different path from the beginning. We have known that children with these diagnoses have more interactions with the health care system after they’ve been diagnosed, but this indicates that distinctive patterns of utilization begin early in these children’s lives. This could provide an opportunity to intervene sooner.”

The researchers plan to conduct additional analyses to better understand the specific health concerns that prompted extra doctor and hospital visits, according to the Duke University article.

Better understanding the health care needs of autistic individuals, from birth and assessment into adulthood and old age, is a critical component in ensuring their ability to develop full independent lives.

Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.

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