Monday 21 March 2016

Risk of premature death and autism: some reflections

"People with autism 'die younger', warns charity" went the very stark BBC headline recently.

Today I'd like to bring your attention to the recent report published by Autistica titled: 'Personal tragedies, public crisis' making the headlines, highlighting how people with autism face a considerably enhanced risk of early mortality compared with the general population [1] (see here for my take).

Although making quite sober reading and rightly using some very emotive language, I think most people would welcome this report in highlighting an issue that for too long has seemingly been 'brushed under the carpet'. I've talked about early mortality and autism a few times on this blog (see here) and how it potentially intersects with other issues such as wandering/elopement (see here) and access to appropriate medical care that takes into consideration the manifestation(s) of autism (see here). The bottom line being that for some people, autism and/or the 'effects' of autism for whatever reason, can be life-limiting as well as life-changing. I know that last sentence might not make a great autism awareness message but lives are being needlessly lost. Indeed, I wonder whether with World Autism Awareness Day approaching, that should be a primary message this year and every year...

I appreciate the calls for further research on the issue of premature mortality and autism highlighted in the Autistica report and how for example, we do need to know more about the prevalence of early mortality in relation to autism here in the UK. I'm fearful however that potentially spending years (and precious monetary resources) waiting for such prevalence data to be forthcoming does little for those at risk here and now. Indeed, the more important issue of how to reduce (eradicate) the early mortality risk in relation to autism, is something that I would particularly champion and what this might mean for the way we think about autism in terms of the provision of screening and intervention and providing greater social and health support for those on the spectrum (and their families and loved ones).

Epilepsy and suicide are discussed as important causes of death when it comes to autism in the published report but are not then only ones. Accepting that suicide - ideation or completed - is a complex act with many potential roads bringing a person to such a final decision (see here), one of the primary opportunities for reducing suicide risk has to be to screen for comorbid symptoms/diagnoses that might enhance such risk. Y'know, things like depression (see here) in light of where that can potentially lead; taking into account that the label depression covers quite a bit of diagnostic ground and might not always appear as expected in relation to autism (see here). Treating and/or managing symptoms of depression should then be indicated, accepting that talking- and the traditional pharmaco-therapies might not be the only tools in the intervention arsenal (see here). I might also advance the idea that a person's social environment can also influence risk of suicide; such that this should likewise be assessed and acted upon accordingly. Social attitudes and policy have to change.

Epilepsy has a long history of association with autism (see here). Again, it's all about appropriate (and perhaps preferential) screening and monitoring as and when autism is diagnosed to keep an eye on symptoms pertinent to the development of epilepsy or seizure disorder. Medication can be life-saving when it comes to epilepsy but this should perhaps also come with some good medicines management including screening other parameters (see here). That quite a few 'types' of autism might actually come with epilepsy as part of the diagnostic package (see here) is worth noting in terms of receipt of a diagnosis of autism being a springboard to further screening and assessment. The idea that some of the more complementary interventions indicated for autism might also have an important impact on comorbid seizure issues outside of the label (see here) should be pointed out (with no medical or clinical advice given or intended).

As uncomfortable as it might be, the idea that a diagnosis of autism elevates the risk of premature mortality provokes the questions: should science be doing more to help lessen the risk(s) of someone developing autism in the first place and/or should we be focusing greater attention on ways to 'alleviate' the more disabling - life-threatening - symptoms of the label? I've already aired some of my views on this in previous posts on the equally emotive topic of euthanasia / assisted suicide in respect to behavioural / psychiatric labels where autism has been mentioned (see here). Alongside various research suggesting that childhood behavioural issues elevate the risk of adult psychopathology and onwards poorer life outcomes (see here), childhood neurodevelopmental issues such as autism have similarly been tied to later outcomes adversely affecting quality of life (see here). In short, what happens in childhood affects what happens in adulthood. Armed with that knowledge, should we not be doing all we can in childhood as well as adulthood?

Moves to increase awareness of autism - including the idea of heterogeneity - and importantly, creating a more welcoming society for people on the autism spectrum should of course remain a priority. I dare say that if more meaningful and 'sustainable' opportunities were afforded to those with autism, the risk of suicide might, for example, be lessened for quite a few who consider turning to such an extreme option. But alongside all the talk about 'celebrating autism' (to coin a term - see here) the report from Autistica highlights some very real and very raw implications attached to the diagnosis. How potentially moving autism from the (generalised) description of a 'life-long condition' to that of a potentially 'life-limiting condition' should be a call to action to ensure that a reduction of between 16 and 30 YEARS of life is no longer tolerated as and when autism is diagnosed. I'd say that represents a crisis indeed.


[1] Hirvikoski T. et al. Premature mortality in autism spectrum disorder. Br J Psychiatry. 2015 Nov 5.

---------- Hirvikoski T, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Boman M, Larsson H, Lichtenstein P, & Bölte S (2016). Premature mortality in autism spectrum disorder. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 208 (3), 232-8 PMID: 26541693

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