Autism diagnosis in adulthood linked to higher rate of psychiatric conditions

Story at a glance

  • People on the autism spectrum may also have varying co-occurring disorders and psychiatric conditions.

  • An analysis of more than 4,600 autistic adults finds differences in the group that was diagnosed during childhood and the group diagnosed at age 21 or older.

  • This may have implications for past studies in adults with autism and for mental health practitioners who work with people with autism.

Autism researchers are interested in whether there could be differences between autism patients who get diagnosed early in life versus later in life. Getting an earlier diagnosis could help a person gain a better understanding of themselves or get medical help. A new study looks at data to try to understand if there are differences between people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as children compared to people who were diagnosed as adults.

In a study published in Autism Research, an analysis of data on 4,657 legally independent autistic adults finds differences in co-occurring conditions between groups of adults who were diagnosed as a child versus as an adult.

People who were diagnosed with autism as adults (aged 21 or older) were 2.7 times more likely to have co-occurring mood, anxiety, personality or eating disorders than people who were diagnosed in childhood. They also reported lifetime diagnoses of psychiatric conditions at a higher rate, at 3.2 versus 2.8 for people diagnosed during childhood.

This has implications for studies on autism where age of diagnosis was not a consideration.

“Experiences of childhood- versus adulthood-diagnosed people are likely to be quite different,” said lead researcher Vanessa Bal, the Karmazin and Lillard Chair in Adult Autism at Rutgers University, to Spectrum. Especially where studies do not have that information to differentiate between the groups, trying to generalize findings “is going to have serious implications for research.”

These potential differences between age of diagnosis could also affect how mental health professionals understand their autistic patients.

“There is a shortage of mental health clinicians adequately trained to provide supports for autistic adults — many providers report lower feelings of competence and are reluctant to take autistic adults as clients,” Bal told Spectrum.

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