In many ways, autism can be an asset and doesn’t need to be seen as a negative thing. However, when it comes to life expectancy, a Swedish study says people on the autism spectrum get the short end of the stick.
The average life expectancy for the general population is about 70 years of age. The life expectancy for someone with autism, however, is just 54. That’s a substantial 16-year difference.
Sadly, this gap is likely due at least in part to the young age at which a large percentage of people on the spectrum take their own lives. The top three causes of death for people on the autism spectrum were found to be heart disease, suicide, and epilepsy. People with ASD and no other cognitive dysfunction were nine times more likely to commit suicide than those not on the spectrum.
It’s likely that the high suicide rate among ASD individuals has a lot to do with bullying and the fact that people with autism have trouble making friends and fitting in with their peers. This leads to isolation, loneliness, and a poor self-image. In a recent study, bullying was found to double an ASD individual’s risk of committing suicide.
Girls were found to have higher rates of suicide than boys, likely because of later diagnoses and a lack of early intervention. Because fewer girls are diagnosed with autism, it’s also more difficult for a girl with ASD to find solace in a group of peers who are like her.
Many suicides occur during the adolescent and teenage years, but people with autism aren’t out of the woods once they reach adulthood. Because ASD was historically believed to be a children’s disorder, many autism resources and services end once a person with ASD reaches adulthood. The lack of support and all the changes that come with entering adulthood may push some people with autism over the edge.
We hope that this study acts as a warning sign to those who have the power to make a change for the autism community. Schools—from grade school all the way up through college—should be offering more autism training to their teachers. Strong zero-tolerance anti-bullying programs should also be implemented, and resources should be made readily available to any students who are depressed, suicidal, or experiencing bullying.
More programs should also be created for adults with autism spectrum disorder. Autism doesn’t simply disappear with age, and its time that we acknowledged that and began offering more resources to adults struggling with the intricacies and complications of adult life on the spectrum.
With time and a great deal of work, we can improve the life expectancy of people with autism, both through medical breakthroughs and through a simple offering of better resources to those who are at risk of taking their own lives.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?