WEDNESDAY, May 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Autism apparently
isn't a stand-alone disorder, with new research revealing that
adults with autism often face a host of mental and physical
Kaiser Permanente researchers found that nearly all medical
conditions are significantly more common in adults with autism
spectrum disorders than those without, ranging from depression to
gastrointestinal problems to obesity. Notably, however, adults with
autism are much less likely to smoke or use alcohol than other
adults, and cancer rates are similar.
"Some of these conditions we've seen in children with autism, so we expected higher rates of anxiety and depression, and some of the medical disorders, such as gastrointestinal disturbances, in adults," said study author Lisa Croen, director of the Kaiser Permanente Autism Research Program in Oakland, Calif.
"That's been reported for a long time in children, so we're not surprised to see those continue to be elevated," she added. "But we were surprised by the magnitude of what we found."
The study is scheduled to be presented Thursday at the
International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta. Research
presented at scientific conferences typically has not been
peer-reviewed or published and results are considered
Diagnosed in about 1 in 68 American children, autism spectrum
disorder is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in
the United States, according to the advocacy and research
organization Autism Speaks.
The disorder can be mild or severe, but symptoms typically
include social and communication difficulties and repetitive
Croen and her colleagues examined medical records from 2008 to
2012, and compared the prevalence of psychiatric, behavioral and
medical diagnoses among 2,100 adults with an autism spectrum
disorder to 21,000 adults without the disorder.
Adults diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder had markedly
higher rates of mental health problems than the other adults:
People with autism spectrum disorders were also more likely than
adults without the disorder to have physical ailments, such as:
"What the data show is really an extension of what we've learned already of children and adolescents with autism," said Dr. Paul Wang, senior vice president and head of medical research for Autism Speaks, who wasn't involved in the study. "It's not just a brain disorder -- it's really a disorder that affects the whole body. And this shows that these problems don't go away."
Croen said that many possible reasons exist for the wide gap in
mental and physical ailments suffered by adults with autism,
including a potential genetic basis. But the "core impairments" of
those with autism -- such as communication problems and heightened
sensitivity to touch -- can also make it difficult for them to be
properly examined by clinicians, she said.
"People with autism often have very selective eating and their nutrition suffers," Croen added. "Their social impairments can lead to isolation, which leads to a lack of exercise. So some lifestyle factors can create more unhealthy lifestyles."
Social isolation may also explain why adults with autism are
less likely to drink alcohol or smoke, noted Croen, also a senior
research scientist at Kaiser Permanente Northern California
Division of Research.
"Smoking and drinking are more social behaviors, especially in young people," she said. "Or, that's how it gets started. These young people with autism are out of the mainstream."
Croen and Wang agreed that autism researchers should extend
their focus beyond the brain to multiple bodily systems as well as
examine the transition from pediatric to adult health care.
"I hope these findings raise awareness among the medical community and others that adults with autism have a really high burden of medical and psychiatric conditions, much more than people think," Croen said. "There's a real need for doctors to be educated about autism and the characteristics of these adults so they can provide adequate and effective care."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more
autism spectrum disorders.
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