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New Research Shows Connection Between Autism and Mental Illness

A study published Monday suggests that people on the spectrum are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions than the general public. While this isn’t necessarily a new finding, a second study on autistic seniors shows why it’s so important to better support people on the spectrum across the lifespan.

In a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, researchers looked at health data from a cohort of more than 1,000 autistic people born between 1976 and 2000 in Minnesota. They found that people on the spectrum were more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, clinical depression or bipolar disorder than the general public.

Specifically, 7.3% of autistic people in the study were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, 54.1% with depression and 50% with anxiety. In comparison, 0.9% of neurotypical people included in the study as a reference were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, 28.9% with depression and 22.2% with anxiety. People on the spectrum were also more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness younger than their neurotypical counterparts and were more likely to be diagnosed with more than one mental health condition.

It’s worth noting, autism is not a disease nor is it a mental illness. It’s a form of neurodiversity — a different way of viewing and understanding the world. Though more research is needed, the barriers neurodiverse people face trying to navigate a neurotypical world may impact the health of people on the spectrum over the course of their lifetime, highlighting a need for better resources geared toward autistic adults of all ages.

The findings of this study track with other studies on mental health and autism, as well as the personal experience of people on the spectrum, who face many challenges navigating a world that typically doesn’t understand or accommodate neurodiversity. Mighty contributor Katelyn Decker shared what this experience can feel like as an autistic person who also deals with anxiety. Decker wrote:

Looking back, now that I have the diagnosis of autism and now I understand that anxiety seems to flow through my emotions like blood through my veins, it all makes sense. Since I process and respond to the outside world so differently, my response to my classmates when I was in elementary/middle school and how I acted seemingly irresponsibly and inappropriately now makes total sense. But because I was made fun of for responding so differently, anxiety seemed to build roots in my mind and still have yet to let go.

A second study also highlighted why it’s so important to better support autistic people throughout the lifespan. Published in the journal Autism on Nov. 27, the study’s authors found people on the spectrum still face higher rates of mental and physical illnesses as they become seniors.

Researchers compared the health outcomes of nearly 5,000 autistic seniors covered by Medicare with their neurotypical counterparts. Researchers found autistic seniors were more likely to experience almost all health conditions studied, from diabetes to osteoporosis, heart disease and mental health conditions. The highest risk factors for people on the spectrum included epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and gastrointestinal conditions as well as higher rates of suicidal ideation and self-injury.

This study included people born prior to 1950, which the study’s authors note is important because these autistic seniors grew up before autism was an official diagnosis in 1980 and before what is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law in 1975. As a result, many of the people included in the study were likely diagnosed with autism later in life and didn’t receive supports or accommodations.

“Results of this study indicate that autistic older adults are more likely to be diagnosed with almost all physical and mental health conditions examined than the general older adult population,” study authors wrote in their discussion. “The present study begins to address a critical gap in the literature by characterizing cooccurring conditions in autistic older adults, which can provide key knowledge to health care providers, policymakers, and other stakeholders.”

Header image via Benjamin Davies/Unsplash