Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Risk of death by injury and autism

"Individuals with autism appear to be at substantially heightened risk for death from injury."

That was the research bottom line published by Joseph Guan & Guohua Li [1] from Columbia University Medical Center, who trawled the accumulated data included in the US National Vital Statistics System screening death certificates issued between 1999 and 2014. Of the approximate 32 million death certificates issued, researchers found that some 1300 people diagnosed as on the autism spectrum had their death recorded and recorded with mention alongside the word 'autism'.

A few details about those 1367 deaths among those with autism compared with the not-autism population have captured media headlines (see here) not least the finding that: "The mean age at death for individuals with autism was 36.2 years (SD = 20.9 years), compared with 72.0 years (SD = 19.2 years) for the general population." This data tallies with other reports on premature mortality in relation to autism (see here) and also in respect of some of the over-represented comorbidity that accompanies the label such as learning (intellectual) disability (see here). I might also forward the idea that another over-represented comorbidity - attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - appearing alongside autism (see here) might also have some relevance when it specifically comes to injury risk too (see here). Researchers noted that around a quarter of deaths recorded for those with autism were attributed to injury - quite a bit more than compared to those general population death stats - and that suffocation, asphyxiation and drowning made up a considerable portion of those deaths following injury.

OK a step back is required here. This data does not mean that those diagnosed on the autism spectrum have a life expectancy of 36.2 years (plus or minus 20 years or so). I know it might seem a little obvious to make such a statement but I do want to make that point clear. The data did find that premature mortality due to injury and non-injury does seem to 'hit younger' when it comes to autism (bear in mind also that the majority of recorded deaths where autism was mentioned were not caused as a result of injury).

Appreciating that some people have voiced their concern about these and other aspects of the Guan/Li paper (see here) I have to say that I'm slightly more focused on the pattern of death by injury reported over above whether the data is truly representative of the autistic population at large or not. Death by drowning is sadly something all too familiar when it comes to autism, particularly when taken in the context of the wandering/elopement data (see here). Yes, for some, autism, the presentation of autism and autism+, can be a life-limiting diagnosis. I know that last sentence does not make for great PR but readers should look at it in the context of other important peer-reviewed information too (see here and see here).

So, what can be done to improve life prospects for those on the autism spectrum?  Well, outside of moves to reduce the multitude of health inequalities that seem to coincide with receipt of a diagnosis of autism (see here and see here for examples), there are some practical solutions. Lessons about water safety and learning to swim represent a first course of action [2] and something that may have various other beneficial effects in terms of physical fitness (another issue that pervades the autism research literature). I appreciate that some children (and adults) might be a little nervous around water but with a bit of creative thinking (i.e. making swimming fun and not just about learning to do lengths of the pool) I don't doubt that learning such a life-saving skill can be made much more palatable. In the age where cinemas and theatres have 'autism-friendly' screenings, surely autism-friendly swimming sessions can't be too far behind?

In relation to reducing other potential causes of death such as suffocation and asphyxia, there may be other things to consider. I'm assuming that food and eating patterns may be something to be looked at when it comes to problems such as choking. This means education about eating small morsels of food and the importance of properly chewing food before swallowing so reducing the frequency of food packing for example. This might also have implications as and when medication is taken orally (via the mouth) and little details such as ensuring that a person drinks some water with any tablets that need to be taken. You may again think this is a rather obvious thing to say but sadly, there have been occasions when choking on food [3] has led to rather extreme consequences in the context of the autism spectrum.

In short, death by injury in relation to autism is not something that should ever be accepted. Yes, injury and accidents happen, but that's not to say nothing that can be done to prevent some/many of them...


[1] Guan J. & Li G. Injury Mortality in Individuals With Autism. American Journal of Public Health. 2017. Mar 21.

[2] Pan CY. Effects of water exercise swimming program on aquatic skills and social behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism. 2010 Jan;14(1):9-28.

[3] Hudson A. et al. Packing and Problematic Feeding Behaviors in CHARGE Syndrome: A Qualitative Analysis. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2016 Mar;82:107-15.


ResearchBlogging.org Guan, J., & Li, G. (2017). Injury Mortality in Individuals With Autism American Journal of Public Health DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303696