This article was written by Miriam Martini, pictured above with fellow MQ Mark Taylor.
Both Miriam and Mark are based in Karolinska Instiutet, Sweden.
Autism It is a condition that affects individuals’ social communication, as well as their interaction with the world around them. Individuals with autism have an increased risk of developing mental health problems. About 70% of children meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health problem and among adults over 50% receive a psychiatric diagnosis.
Our study supported by MQRecently, these mental health difficulties are particularly pronounced among women with autism. We looked at these mental health issues during the transition into adulthood, between the ages of 16 and 25, when they usually appear.
The study looked at different levels of psychiatric care including diagnosis as well as hospitalization for 11 mental disorders including depressionAnd the worrysleep, eating disorders, and self-harm. Both women and men with autism were more likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis and be hospitalized with a psychiatric disorder compared to non-autistic individuals of the same sex.
Compared to men with autism, for most disorders, women with autism were more likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis or be hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder in their youth.
By age 25, 62.4% of women with autism compared to 45.3% of men with autism had at least one psychiatric diagnosis, and 22.1% versus 10.9% were hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder. These numbers are deeply concerning and highlight the need to identify preparedness, urgency, and persistence in determinants of psychological difficulties in individuals with autism, especially women.
Many factors can contribute to these high rates of psychiatric diagnoses and hospitalizations in women with autism. Using specific behaviors and cognitive strategies to disguise or mask their autistic characteristics, which may be more common among autistic women, can negatively affect mental health. Furthermore, women with autism are often later diagnosed or misdiagnosed as co-occurring before obtaining an autism diagnosis which may delay the arrival of support.
Many individuals with autism, especially women, also report negative experiences when seeking services for their concurrent mental health problems. Receiving services is often described as difficult, as it faces many obstacles at different levels of the process. This includes the availability of services, inadequate funding for services that find the environment in clinics difficult to meet due to sensory difficulties, as well as the overall complexity of the health care system. Individuals with autism have reported feeling stigmatized when accessing services, and thus may be reluctant to seek help, which can exacerbate their mental health conditions. Communication problems between autistic individuals and medical staff, who often report a lack of competence and confidence in treating autistic individuals, may further complicate access to appropriate help.
To appropriately support individuals with autism, and women in particular, concurrent mental health conditions must be more routinely considered and managed on an ongoing basis.
Short-term suggestions for improving the service experience for individuals with autism include helping to navigate the system—for example by making sure appointments can be booked in accessible ways—adapting communications and processing sensory stressors. Existing mental health services must be provided by trained clinicians and adapted to the unique needs and strengths of individuals with autism. This requires clinicians to actively participate in individuals with autism in treatment decisions and help them manage their mental health conditions independently and independently.
Future research should determine what factors contribute to mental health problems in women and men with autism and to what extent intersection factors influence this relationship. It will also be important to determine the association and interaction between mental and physical health problems to obtain a more holistic view of the health of individuals with autism.
For more information on autism, including further research please visit Autistica’s website.