When you get the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, there are a lot of questions that every parent must ask. A central one is, “What can I do to help my child?” But one question that unfortunately must be asked is about autism life expectancy. Do autistic people have a lower life expectancy?
This article will delve into the latest science and research to provide answers to this crucial question.
Is Autism Life Expectancy Lower Than General Population?
The sad truth is, yes. People on the autism spectrum have a lower life expectancy than neurotypical people. According to research by the National Library of Medicine, the average autism life expectancy in 2018 fell as low as 39 years. And that shorter life expectancy was often met with plenty of other health problems.
During a 20-year study, the National Library of Medicine determined that chronic conditions, like cancer, accidents, and health complications from medicine side effects heavily contributed to these younger deaths.
According to a different study, the average autism life expectancy was around 54 years old. That’s still lower than the 72-year life expectancy for the general population.
It should be noted while the average life expectancy may be lower for people on the autism spectrum, no research has ever found autism to be the cause of the lower life expectancy. According to statistics from the National Autism Association, accidents are the number one cause of lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates among people with autism spectrum disorder.
Why do People with Autism Have a Lower Life Expectancy?
People with autism do not inherently have a lower life expectancy due to their autism diagnosis. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting social interaction, communication, and behavior but not directly impacting a person’s physical health or longevity.
However, several factors can contribute to potentially lower autism life expectancy than it’s the case with the general population. Some of them are genetic disorders, neurological disorders, accidents, mental health issues, and suicide.
As discussed, numerous factors can lead to a lower life expectancy for autistic people than the general population. One of the major factors is genetic disorders.
According to Massachusetts General Hospital, 16 to 18 out of every 100 people with Down Syndrome also have autism spectrum disorders. Autistic people are also at an increased risk of other genetic disorders like muscular dystrophy and Fragile X syndrome.
Fragile X is a genetic condition associated with intellectual disability and behavioral challenges, and some individuals with Fragile X may exhibit features of autism. While life expectancy is generally not significantly impacted by Fragile X, individuals may have co-occurring health conditions or challenges requiring management.
The co-occurrence of muscular dystrophy and autism, while relatively rare, is a complex and challenging situation for individuals and their families. Muscular dystrophy is a group of genetic disorders that primarily affect the muscles, leading to progressive muscle weakness and degeneration.
These genetic disorders, coupled with autism spectrum disorder, can lead to a lower life expectancy for an autistic person. And that’s just one of many potential contributors.
According to 2018 research, on top of genetic disorders, people with autism are also at an increased risk of neurological disorders like epilepsy, hydrocephalus, sleep disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders. Any of these, if left untreated, can lead to premature death. On their own, they certainly lead to an elevated mortality risk for autistic individuals.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that involves recurrent seizures. It is more common in individuals with autism than in the general population. Seizures can risk a person’s safety, and uncontrolled epilepsy may contribute to health complications. However, with proper management, many individuals with epilepsy can lead full lives.
Hydrocephalus is a condition characterized by an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain’s ventricles. It can lead to increased pressure in the skull, potentially causing damage to brain tissue. The co-occurrence of hydrocephalus and autism presents a complex medical situation. Depending on hydrocephalus’s severity and associated complications, individuals may require ongoing medical care and monitoring.
Sleep problems in people with autism are often related to sensory sensitivities, irregular sleep patterns, anxiety, and other factors. Poor sleep can harm a person’s physical health, indirectly affecting life expectancy. It can lead to obesity, metabolic disturbances, and compromised immune function.
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While we must ask questions about potential genetic and neurological disorders for our loved ones on the spectrum, accidents remain the number one reason for the lower autism life expectancy.
According to the National Autism Association, 48% of children with autism have wandered off from their families. These can increase accidents, especially if a child is fond of water. Drowning is one of the leading causes of premature death for autistic people.
A study published by the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) mentions how people with autism are three times more likely to die because of injuries than the general population. While there are many reasons behind these tragic accidents, some are caused by sensory issues.
Sensory sensitivities in people with autism can make them more prone to sensory overload, which may increase the risk of accidents and injuries, especially in sensory-rich or overstimulating environments. On top of that, communication issues can also pose a risk.
Communication challenges associated with autism can make it difficult for individuals to express pain, discomfort, or injuries. This can lead to delayed medical attention and treatment for injuries.
Mental Health Issues and Suicide
Autistic people also have an increased risk for mental health issues, according to Rogers Behavioral Health. Those potential issues include anxiety, depression, psychotic episodes, and trauma disorders.
Unfortunately, a higher risk of mental health issues also means a higher risk of suicide. A recent study at the University of Iowa found that risk increased further if the autistic person had what is considered to be a higher IQ. The risk of suicide increased six times for those on the spectrum with an IQ of 120 or higher compared to those with a lower IQ.
Unfortunately, research shows that autistic people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population and up to seven times more likely to die by suicide. While many factors may cause suicidal thoughts, some of the most common reasons are negative childhood experiences, loneliness, communication difficulties, and lack of support.
While autistic tendencies, such as hyper-focusing, may increase some of these factors, they’re more often influenced by social, political, and cultural factors. Many people on the spectrum struggle with finding support and feelings of alienation and exclusion.
How Can the Life Expectancy for Autistic People Be Raised?
While autism spectrum disorder doesn’t automatically reduce life expectancy, autistic people die at a younger age at a higher rate than neurotypical people. But what can be done to improve life expectancy? Researchers say that starts with both families and health care professionals.
Healthcare professionals often evaluate physical health, but they can also keep an eye on the mental health of autistic individuals. While little can be done about genetic disorders, family members and doctors can help identify neurological disorders and devise a treatment plan. One of my sons has been diagnosed with epilepsy and a sleep disorder. We worked out a plan that includes routines and medications necessary to help reduce the risk of both disorders, particularly seizures linked to epilepsy.
Family members can also step up to address mental health issues. While mental health can certainly affect someone’s self-esteem, anyone who recognizes anxiety or depression can step up to address the situation. You may never know if you are addressing someone at a greater risk of suicide, but addressing mental health in our social relationships can go a long way to extending the life expectancy of the population at large.
Family can also be more attentive to prevent accidents. It can be difficult if the child is an elopement risk or gets into every cabinet in the house, but taking precautions and being more attentive can reduce the risk of wandering, drowning, and accidentally ingesting a lethal dose of medication.
Sadly, the life expectancy for people with autism spectrum disorders is lower than that of the general population. Early mortality rates can be linked to several contributing factors, but family and healthcare providers can go a long way in addressing the higher risk of earlier death. Autism is not the cause of the lower life expectancy, and those of us who love someone with autism spectrum disorder can step in and help them in their times of need.
Q: What is the life expectancy of individuals with autism?
A: Autism itself does not have a direct impact on life expectancy. However, some individuals with autism may have co-occurring health conditions that can affect their life expectancy. Focusing on overall health and well-being is essential rather than attributing life expectancy solely to autism.
Q: Do individuals with severe autism have a different life expectancy than those with milder forms of the condition?
A: There is no established correlation between the severity of autism and life expectancy. Life expectancy can vary greatly among individuals with autism, depending on their overall health and the presence of other medical conditions.
Q: What are some health concerns that may affect individuals with autism?
A: People with autism may be at a higher risk for certain health issues, such as epilepsy, gastrointestinal problems, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Proper medical care and early intervention can help manage these concerns.
Q: How can caregivers and families support the well-being of individuals with autism?
A: Providing a supportive and inclusive environment, ensuring regular medical check-ups, and addressing specific sensory and communication needs can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals with autism. Early intervention, education, and therapies tailored to their needs are also crucial.
Q: Are there any promising research or advancements in autism treatment and support that may impact life expectancy?
A: Research in the field of autism is ongoing, and there are continuous advancements in understanding and supporting individuals with autism. Early intervention, specialized therapies, and increased awareness have already improved the quality of life for many. Further research may lead to better outcomes and support in the future.