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Autism and Early Mortality

by Sally Willbanks
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Autism and Early Mortality

There have been several studies published that find the life expectancy of autistics to be staggeringly lower than that of the general population. These findings are shocking, heart breaking, and show that something has to be done NOW to improve the lives of autistic people.

In April 2017, the American Journal of Public Health published a study that finds the life expectancy of autistic people to be 36 years old, as compared with 72 years old for the general population (in the US). They list the major cause of death to be injuries (suffocation, asphyxiation and drowning), with about 28 percent of autistics dying from injury. This is about 40 times higher than in the general population. The mortality rate is so high for those with ASD because the death of autistic children by drowning is higher, which makes the average age of death a lot lower. The risk of an autistic child drowning peaks at around age 6.

Another study was done by scientists from the Swedish Karolinska Institute, with the results published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Between 1987 and 2009, scientists looked at more than 27,000 autistic people and compared them to a group of 2.6 million non-autistic people. Researchers discovered that the average life expectancy for the general population was about 70 years old, while the average age for the autistic group was about 54. Sadly, for the autistics in the group who had intellectual delay (ID), the life expectancy was just under 40 years old. During the years of the study, less than 1 percent of the general population group died, compared with 2.5 percent in the ASD group.

Another study out of the University of NSW in Australia, and published in Autism Research, found that mortality rates for those with ASD are twice that of the general population. They found that people with co-occurring conditions such as epilepsy, chronic physical illness, and mental conditions, as well as intellectual delay, were at a high risk of mortality. They found that while the most common causes of death in the general population are cancer and circulatory diseases, the most common causes in the autistic population are injury and poisoning (including accidents, deaths related to self-harming, and suicide), with nervous system disorders like epilepsy a close second. 20-40 percent of the ASD population has epilepsy, as opposed to 1 percent of the general population.

Studies have shown that 30 – 50 percent of the ASD population has considered suicide, with the suicide rate being highest among girls with ASD, as well as people with ‘milder forms’ of autism. Bullying is a common occurrence for autistic people, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Exclusion from society takes a huge emotional toll.

Another common cause of death for autistics is heart disease, most likely from high levels of stress.

These findings show averages, and do not have the ability to predict the actual age of death for any individual autistic person. There are a few things we can do, such as help all autistic children be water-safe. If you have an autistic child, as early as possible get them into swimming lessons and teach them about water safety. We can also support autistic people when they need to navigate the health care system, go to a hospital or to the doctor. If we run a business, we can make workplace accommodations for autistic people, such as low lighting, quiet spaces, allow them to wear comfortable clothing and noise reduction headphones, be flexible with deadlines, and have understanding and empathy for autistic employees.

These are just a few things we can do to help the autistic people in our lives overcome these shattering statistics and beat the odds. It is immensely important that the lives of autistic people are improved, because these statistics are unacceptable.

by Sally Willbanks

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