Scientists just beginning to understand autistic adults' unique health needs

May 11, 2018 by Adityarup, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The researchers found that individuals with ASD had increased risks of developing several health complications, including various cardiovascular issues, hypothyroidism, and other neurological issues. Credit:

In the 1990s, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among children rose sharply. These children are now entering adulthood, yet physicians and scientists know very little about the health outcomes they might face. Most studies of health have focused on children and adolescents.

However, new research published this week by scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison found that older adults with ASD may be at greater risk than people without the disorder of developing several , including cardiovascular, urinary, respiratory and digestive issues.

"This is one of the few studies to look at problems in a primarily middle-aged and older population of with ASD," says lead author, Lauren Bishop-Fitzpatrick. "Knowing what adults with autism are more likely to encounter is critical to provide them with effective care and develop prevention strategies."

With colleagues, Bishop-Fitzpatrick, assistant professor of social work and a researcher at the UW–Madison Waisman Center, used machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence – to analyze de-identified electronic health records of individuals who had received healthcare from the Marshfield Clinic in central Wisconsin and have since passed away.

They analyzed the health records of 91 individuals with ASD and more than 6,000 individuals without ASD from the same region as comparison. The ratio of patients with and without autism was roughly equal to 1:68, the most recent rate of ASD prevalence in the United States as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers found that individuals with ASD had increased risks of developing several health complications, including various cardiovascular issues, hypothyroidism, and other neurological issues. They were at decreased risk of alcohol abuse, hypertension, and of developing metastatic cancers.

Based solely on information from patients' , the researchers were also able to independently predict with 93 percent accuracy whether or not a specific individual had ASD.

"These findings can help us direct healthcare resources and work on prevention efforts more efficiently," says Bishop-Fitzpatrick. "For example, knowing that adults with ASD may be at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, we can start adapting techniques and healthcare measures that are already in place for the general population to best help adults with ASD."

Learning more about the healthcare issues of adults with ASD could also help extend their lives. A 2016 study in Sweden found that individuals with ASD died at significantly younger ages – nearly 20 years earlier – compared to those without ASD.

The researchers hope their findings will lead to larger, more comprehensive studies that focus on the health issues faced by older individuals with ASD. Bishop-Fitzpatrick also plans to speak to individuals with autism and their families to understand their individual health issues and concerns at the same time that she works to understand these at the population level.

"Our goal is to create strategies and interventions that can help individuals with ASD live longer and healthier lives and to make sure they have the best quality of life for as long as possible," says Bishop-Fitzpatrick.

Explore further: Healthcare costs for adults with autism more than double those for general population

More information: Lauren Bishop-Fitzpatrick et al. Using machine learning to identify patterns of lifetime health problems in decedents with autism spectrum disorder, Autism Research (2018). DOI: 10.1002/aur.1960

Related Stories

Healthcare costs for adults with autism more than double those for general population

April 24, 2018
Researchers compared total annual healthcare costs for adults on the autism spectrum to costs for adults with attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and adults in the general population and found them to be 20% ...

New book explores drinking, drug abuse, and addiction in the autism community

October 17, 2017
What is the connection between autism and addiction? Why are individuals with autism more likely to develop a substance use disorder than the general population?

Increased reaction to stress linked to gastrointestinal issues in children with autism

January 4, 2017
One in 45 American children lives with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these children also have significant gastrointestinal issues, but the cause of these symptoms ...

Review examines nutritional issues related to autism spectrum disorder

July 15, 2015
About 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder. This represents a 78% increase in the incidence of autism spectrum disorder since 2002 (although some of the increase may be due to improved diagnostic capabilities). ...

Risk for aging-related diseases elevated among thyroid cancer survivors

November 22, 2017
Risk for aging-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes was significantly higher among thyroid cancer survivors in Utah than it was among age-matched, cancer-free individuals, with those diagnosed before age 40 ...

Research finds communication therapy effective but more studies needed

October 5, 2017
More research on the effectiveness of augmentative and alternative communication is necessary to guide people who work with adolescents and adults with autism, according to a review a new University of Arkansas faculty member ...

Recommended for you

Earlier treatment could help reverse autistic-like behavior in tuberous sclerosis

October 9, 2018
New research on autism has found, in a mouse model, that drug treatment at a young age can reverse social impairments. But the same intervention was not effective at an older age.

Scientists pinpoint pathway that impacts features of autism

October 8, 2018
A team of scientists at Florida Atlantic University has uncovered a brain-signaling pathway that can be pharmacologically manipulated in genetically engineered mice to reverse an autism-related pathway. Using an investigational ...

Scientists reverse a sensory impairment in mice with autism

September 25, 2018
Using a genetic technique that allows certain neurons in the brain to be switched on or off, UCLA scientists reversed a sensory impairment in mice with symptoms of autism, enabling them to learn a sensory task as quickly ...

Latest research hints at predicting autism risk for pregnant mothers

September 21, 2018
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—led by Juergen Hahn, professor and head of biomedical engineering—are continuing to make remarkable progress with their research focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ...

Scientists reveal drumming helps schoolchildren diagnosed with autism

September 14, 2018
Drumming for 60 minutes a week can benefit children diagnosed with autism and supports learning at school, according to a new scientific study.

Overlapping copy number variations underlie autism and schizophrenia in Japanese patients

September 11, 2018
Common genetic variants may underlie autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia across human populations, according to a study appearing September 11th in the journal Cell Reports. In line with previous studies in Caucasians, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.