Adults With Autism at Risk for Many Health Problems
Research shows rates of mental, physical problems higher in these patients than among other adults
"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."