When compared to non-autistic people, autistic young men and women are more affected by psychiatric conditions and have a higher risk of hospitalization as a result of their mental illness.
Women who are autistic are especially vulnerable. This is demonstrated by Karolinska Institutet researchers in a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
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Autistic people are more likely to suffer from mental illness. Current data suggest that autistic women are more vulnerable than autistic men, but few studies have been able to prove this.
Karolinska Institutet researchers have now completed a register-based cohort study with over 1.3 million people in Sweden who were followed from the age of 16 to 24 between 2001 and 2013. Over 20,000 of these people were diagnosed with autism.
The researchers discovered that by the age of 25, 77 out of 100 autistic women had received at least one psychiatric diagnosis, compared to 62 out of 100 autistic men.
"We found an increased risk of eleven different psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, and difficulty sleeping," says Miriam Martini, a doctoral student in psychiatric epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet and the study's first author.
Miriam Martini is concerned that 32 out of 100 autistic women had been hospitalized as a result of their mental illness, compared to 19 out of 100 autistic men. The corresponding figure for non-autistic people was less than five out of 100.
According to Miriam Martini, the study focuses on young adults who are at a critical juncture in their lives when many mental health problems increase and the transition to adulthood often means less access to care.
"Health care for young adults, particularly autistic women, needs to be expanded so that mental illness can be detected in time to avoid worsening symptoms and hospitalization," says Miriam Martini.
The researchers do not know why autistic women are more affected by mental illness than autistic men, but they do point to several possible causes.
Previous research has shown that autistic women use compensatory behaviors to hide their autism to a greater extent, which may be due to the fact that women generally adapt to the expectations of those around them. This causes a delay in diagnosis and treatment, which can have a negative impact on their mental health.
Another possible explanation is that using diagnostic criteria to detect autism in women is difficult.
"Autism may manifest differently in women than in men, implying that women are not detected using current diagnostic criteria. This is something we need to look into further "Miriam Martini says
Journal information: JAMA Psychiatry