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Mar
28

Science Fair: The Same and Different

Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

It Seems the Good Die Young...

This isn't the original study, but here are two examinations of a report that finds life expectancy for those with autism is much less than for neurotypicals. Apparently, in the study, the median age of death for those with autism is 54 -- sixteen years less than for the general population. For some parts of the autism population, it's even lower. Epilepsy and suicide are among the main reasons cited.

Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

It Seems the Good Die Young...

This isn't the original study, but here are two examinations of a report that finds life expectancy for those with autism is much less than for neurotypicals. Apparently, in the study, the median age of death for those with autism is 54 -- sixteen years less than for the general population. For some parts of the autism population, it's even lower. Epilepsy and suicide are among the main reasons cited.

Commentary: I don't feel much doubt that this study is correct. I strongly suspect that suicide and epilepsy aren't really the whole of it, though. My guess is that the real reason life expectancy for people with autism is so low is lack of self-care skills. A neurotypical with chest pain will go to a doctor. An autistic person may not. (I recently read an account of a man with autism who was in a car wreck because he couldn't turn his head to the left to see. He'd had the problem for a long time, but couldn't get things together to get to the doctor. In my case, when I had a medical condition the doctor didn't believe I had, I was unable to fight him -- and suffered for a decade as a result.) Lack of proper care will always increase the chance of bad outcomes, and while each individual risk is small, the cumulative effect is that people with autism will consistently be in worse health. 

Which is not to discount the effects of suicide. It is often stated that depression increases the risk of suicide. As a matter of fact, if anyone looked at the numbers, this appears not to be so. If you take the rate of suicide among those with autism, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and one or two other odd conditions, and multiply by the fraction of the population that has them, you'll find that the estimated total suicides for those groups equals the entire total suicides for the entire population. (I can't believe that no one else has added this up!) People who are merely depressed sit in bed and mope; they don't kill themselves. If we're looking at medical interventions, we need to look particularly at those who have depression and autism, or bipolar depression, or depression and borderline personality disorder. In those groups, the suicide rate is tremendously high.

Birds of a Feather

I think I'd probably best just use their headline on this one: "Disordered Pairs: People More Likely to Find a Mate with a Similar Psychiatric Condition." In other words, people with autism lucky enough to find a partner are likely to find someone else with autism; people with bipolar disorder find someone with bipolar; and so forth.

Commentary: This certainly didn't surprise me, since most of my closest friends have had a lot of autistic traits. I've put a lot of study into this that I won't bore you with.... I think it's a little more complicated than the description implies, because diagnoses are sharply defined (you meet the criteria for autism or you don't!), and people are not sharply defined; conditions overlap a lot. But I think that this is a strong argument for why people with autism should be allowed to interact as much as possible with others like them.

It Really Is a Spectrum...

A new study shows that the many factors that contribute to autism really are cumulative -- that you can have autism with very severe social problems, or somewhat less severe, or have social problems that are related to autism but aren't severe enough to qualify for a diagnosis. In other words, social skills really do form a continuum, and they are influenced by genes.

Commentary: I don't think there is much to say about this except "duh." But it's nice to have more evidence.

Author bio: AuSM member Robert B. Waltz was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics from Hamline University in 1985. He is the author of three books on folklore, the editor of the online folk music database The Traditional Ballad Index, and recently has been informally studying the biology of autism.