Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder with a number of associated signs and behaviors. These can include social difficulties, delays in language development, issues with motor control, and cognitive struggles. The presentation of ASD varies greatly among individuals with the condition. The same holds true for a host of physical, mental, and behavioral health challenges that can occur alongside ASD. The sources of autism-related health conditions are not always clear. They may be caused directly by autism, share certain genetic risk factors with the condition, or be more likely to occur due to environmental factors common among people with ASD. Regardless, parents and caregivers of people with autism need to be on the lookout for these conditions so as to seek the best treatment and avoid behaviors that could trigger or worsen them.
Autism and Elevated Health Risks
Children and adults with autism-related health conditions are at an increased risk for numerous conditions which can impact their physical health. These can include “immune disorders such as allergies or asthma, metabolic disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, and motor disorders such as cerebral palsy.”[i] Other recent studies of adults with autism have echoed the findings of elevated risks of cardiovascular issues. They also found risks for hypothyroidism and neurological issues. Sleep-wake disorders and other sleep issues are very common in children with ASD, with some studies indicating that over half of individuals with autism experience them.[ii]
Children with autism are also at a sharply increased risk of developing epilepsy. The link appears strongest in children who experience autism alongside an intellectual disability. The risk of epilepsy in children with autism seems tied to language regression early in life, usually before the age of 3.[iii] Interestingly, individuals with autism showed decreased risks of certain conditions, such as alcohol abuse and metastatic cancers.[iv]
The Relationship Between ASD and Cardiovascular Issues
Cardiovascular issues have been shown to relate to brain development. Studies have found links between congenital heart disease and autism-associated behaviors. The link between autism and heart problems is one to be aware of.
Congenital heart disease (CHD) has direct impacts on brain maturation, especially when found in young children at levels that require surgery. Children who have CHD without ASD often show some behavioral signs consistent with ASD, such as difficulty understanding the facial expression of others, executive dysfunction, and a strong adherence to preferred routines.
The causes of these behaviors may be tied to “shared genetic pathways that impact heart and brain development.”[v] This could support the likelihood of a genetic component to the increased risk for ASD in people with congenital heart disease. Behavioral or environmental factors could also contribute to this risk. The same may be true of the links between ASD and conditions like diabetes.
Autism and the Increased Risk of Diabetes
Research has found a strong correlation between ASD and Type 2 diabetes. A large study found as much as a threefold risk of developing the condition in teens and young adults with autism versus those without. Exploring this connection, science journalist, Emily Anthes, notes multiple contributing factors. A genetic component may be at play in such cases. Certain risk factors for autism, like the absence of a certain chromosome, may contribute to the sorts of weight issues that can lead to type 2 diabetes. Anthes points out that certain medications used to manage behavior in children with autism may also cause weight gain, further increasing the risk for diabetes. Or, experts note, certain behaviors common among individuals with autism – such as selective eating of certain foods – could result in an unhealthy diet that could lead to the development type 2 diabetes.[vi]
How Do Gastrointestinal Issues Relate to Autism?
Another common health problem for individuals with autism is gastrointestinal issues. These can include symptoms such as stomach pain, constipation, and diarrhea, among others.[vii] GI issues can contribute to the clinical manifestations of ASD-associated symptoms, including “abnormal behavior, immune dysregulation, and metabolic dysfunction.”[viii] One study which details the impact of GI issues on behavior found that children with both ASD and GI issues scored worse on tests of “irritability, social withdrawal, stereotypy and hyperactivity” than their peers who had ASD but no GI issues.[ix] Some of these GI issues could be explained by dietary choices. There also appears to be a link between gut microbiome health and autism, though scientists are still researching how this occurs and its implications for treatment.[x]
Autism and Mental Health
Along with physical health conditions, autism spectrum disorder is also associated with an increased chance of experiencing certain mental health conditions. The most common among these is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As many as 28% of individuals with ASD also have ADHD.[xi] ADHD shares numerous behavioral signs with ASD, including issues with executive function and sensory processing difficulties. Anxiety is another common experience for people with ASD, with as many as 1 in 5 adults with ASD having an anxiety disorder.[xii] People with autism are also at an increased risk for the development of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Autism’s behavioral symptoms can share traits with those of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which can lead to confusion between the conditions. However, studies have found that the conditions occur at greater levels in people with ASD.[xiii] Recent research suggests that the conditions share a similar pattern of gene expression – what writers call a common “brain signature.”[xiv]
Many autism-related health conditions stem from a multitude of causes, both genetic and environmental. For instance, people with autism may lack access to crucial treatment resources or employment, which can amplify stress and leave conditions to worsen without treatment. Understanding these common health issues and their risks can help parents and caregivers keep a lookout for their signs and symptoms. Such knowledge also helps in assisting loved ones with autism to create a positive environment and make healthy lifestyle choices, lowering the likelihood of developing such conditions in the future.