About 78 Percent of Children with Autism Have at Least One Mental Health Condition, Study Shows

Mental health issues are common among most subsets of the population, but they are particularly prevalent among people on the autism spectrum. It’s vital that we acknowledge this fact and work on supporting people with autism better so that we can prevent suicides and keep autistic people as happy and healthy as possible.

In a recent study from the University of British Columbia’s department of psychology and the AJ Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, researchers analyzed data from 1,131 ASD-diagnosed children who took part in the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health to determine the prevalence of mental health conditions among them.

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The prevalence of mental health conditions in this population was compared to that of children with intellectual disabilities and children with other ongoing, chronic conditions. More children with autism had mental health conditions than children in either of the other two groups. Anxiety, for example, was 6.3 times more prevalent in children with autism than in those with intellectual disabilities.

The children who were studied were considered to have a mental health condition if a parent or caregiver reported that a healthcare provider had diagnosed the child with any of a range of conditions. They found that 39.5 percent had been diagnosed with anxiety, 15.7 percent with depression, 60.8 percent with a behavioral or conduct problem, 1.8 percent with Tourette syndrome, and 48.4 percent with ADHD.

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The study data show that nearly 78 percent of children with autism aged three to 17 have at least one mental health condition. Nearly half of them have two or more mental health conditions. By contrast, only 14.1 percent of youth without autism also had mental health conditions.

The study also found that 44.8 percent of preschool-aged children with autism have a mental health condition. That’s nearly half, even at such a young and tender age. These conditions became more prevalent with age, but they were still very prevalent even in very young children. This information is significant, because early intervention may improve the children’s long-term outcomes.

“There’s something specific about autism that is increasing this mental health burden, and it’s true not only for anxiety, but also for depression, behavior problems and attention problems. This is a special population that requires special attention,” says lead author Dr. Connor Kerns, assistant professor at UBC’s Psychology Department.

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Until this study, the scope of this issue had not been established. Now this large population-based sample shows that mental health conditions among young people with autism are more prevalent than previously thought and that healthcare systems need to adapt to account for that.

“For a long time, mental health in kids with autism was neglected because the focus was on autism,” says Dr. Kerns. “There’s much greater awareness now, but we don’t have enough people trained to provide mental health treatments to kids on the autism spectrum. We need to bridge these two systems and the different sets of providers that tend to treat these children.”

The researchers hope that their study will open people’s eyes and make mental health treatments for children with autism more accessible. Dr. Kerns hopes that screening systems for very young children will also be developed so that early intervention can make a bigger difference for these children.

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