Early Death in Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Those with autism spectrum disorder have a shorter life expectancy. Here’s why.

Posted Oct 07, 2018

Two recent studies will undoubtedly shock individuals and families affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These studies show a much earlier age of death in those with ASD as compared with the general population.  

One study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in April 2017, finds the life expectancy in the United States of those with ASD to be 36 years old as compared to 72 years old for the general population.  They note that those with ASD are 40 times more likely to die from various injuries.  About 28 percent of those with ASD die of an injury.  Most of these are suffocation, asphyxiation, and drowning.  The risk of drowning peaks at about 5 to 7 years old.  As 50 percent of those with ASD wander, water safety and swim lessons are a must.  GPS trackers are also available for purchase should a child wander or get lost.  This makes finding the child or adult much easier and faster.

The other study was published by the British Journal of Psychiatry in January 2018.  This was a Swedish study showing similar results but elaborating on other causes of death as well.  This study showed a life expectancy in those with ASD with a cognitive disability (or a learning disability) at 39.5 years versus 70 years for the general population studied.  Those with ASD without a learning disability had an average age of death at about 58 years.  The leading causes of death in those with ASD in this large study were heart disease, suicide, and epilepsy.  The suicide rate among those with ASD was 9 times higher than the general population.  There have only recently been studies showing the increased risk of suicide in those with autism spectrum disorder.  Future studies will help us to understand what causes this increased suicide risk so that we can help to fight it.  It should also be noted that 20-40 percent of those with ASD have seizures compared to 1 percent of the general population, causing this increased risk of death by seizures.  

With all of this in mind, if you are a parent of a child or adult with ASD, you should teach water safety and swim lessons.  You should also have a GPS tracker to find your child quickly should they wander off.  To decrease your child’s risk of suicide, seek out mental health professionals early and treat mental health issues as they arise.  These mental health issues may be depression, anxiety, ADHD, tantrums, aggression, or other mental health problems.  Your child will likely need a counselor and/or psychiatrist at some point.  Also, make sure your child is evaluated for seizures. Please note that your child’s risk for seizures does increase as he or she gets older.  For example, your child might develop a seizure disorder in adolescence.  Your child may need an electroencephalogram (EEG) to evaluate for possible seizures.  If your child has a seizure disorder, he or she will be treated with an anticonvulsant.  You should make sure your child regularly sees a primary care physician to treat medical issues and reduce the risk of heart disease.  In order to get access to these needed resources, check with your state for programs such as Medicaid and the Medicaid waiver program.  

References

1.    Joseph Guan, Guohua Li.  Injury mortality in individuals with autism.  American Journal of Public Health.  April 2017

2.    Tatja Hirvikoski et al.  Premature mortality in autism spectrum disorder.  British Journal of Psychiatry.  Jan 2018