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New Report Outlines Health Care Disparities for Autistic People Across the Lifespan

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In the sixth edition of its National Autism Indicators Report, researchers from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Life Course Outcomes Program investigated health and health care for people on the spectrum. The report found disparities across the lifespan, from difficulty accessing services to higher rates of mental and physical health conditions.

Authors of the autism indicators report found parents frequently had difficulty finding affordable services for their children on the spectrum. Nearly 50% of parents said their health insurance didn’t cover all the services their child needed. Thirty percent of parents reported wanting additional care coordination support for their kids’s needs between different types of health care.

BIPOC families reported even less access to health care. Latinx kids were least likely to have regular health and dental health appointments, while all BIPOC children on the spectrum had less access to a regular source of care.

Autistic children were more likely to have any health condition (except for asthma) compared to other kids with disabilities. Kids on the spectrum also had higher rates of anxiety, ADHD and additional learning needs. However, they did receive mental health care at higher rates than other kids with disabilities.

Among autistic adults, the researchers found similar themes — adults were more likely to have multiple health conditions than their typical peers, including hypertension and epilepsy. However, support systems for people on the spectrum often stop once they reach adulthood. Self-advocates have pointed out that autistic adults need access to resources too.

Drexel’s report also called out mental health as a concern for people on the spectrum. The researchers found autistic adults were two to three times more likely to experience anxiety and depression compared to their typical peers. People on the spectrum are also more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

These findings support past research on the connection between autism and mental illness. Autistic adults have said a general lack of understanding about autism and neurodiversity can be a major factor in their mental health. Masking, or hiding autistic traits, to “fit in” to a typical setting is one example of this.

“The ultimate cost of masking is burnout. Burnout is different from tired,” wrote Mighty contributor Vicki Swan. “For me burnout was depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety. Self-harm. Suicide attempts.”

The latest National Autism Indicators Report strengthens evidence for holistic support — health care and otherwise — for autistic people of all ages. Integrating services and closing gaps in the health care delivery system will improve the well-being of those on the spectrum.

“Health and health care are critical issues for many children and adults on the autism spectrum,” Lindsay Shea, DrPH, director of the Policy and Analytics Center at the Autism Institute and a report author, said in a press release. “Our current health care approaches are not up to task, we need systems-wide improvement focused on holistic care.”

Header image via AaronAmat/Getty Images

Originally published: December 2, 2020
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