. Scientific Frontline: Autistic women have increased risk of mental illness

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Autistic women have increased risk of mental illness

Photo credit: Alexander Grey

Young men and women with autism are more affected by psychiatric conditions and are at increased risk of being threatened as a result of their mental illness, compared to people without autism. Practically vulnerable are autistic women. This is shown by researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

People with autism have an increased risk of suffering from mental illness. Current data indicates that women with autism are more vulnerable than autistic but are, but few studies have been able to establish that there are gender differences.

Researchers from Karolinska Institutet have now done a register-based cohort study with just over 1.3 million people in Sweden, which was followed from 16 to 24 years between 2001 and 2013. More than 20,000 of these were diagnosed with autism.

The researchers could see that by the age of 25, 77 out of 100 women with autism, compared to 62 out of 100 but with autism, had received at least one psychiatric diagnosis.

We saw an increased risk of eleven different psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety syndrome, self-harm behavior and insomnia, says Miriam Martini, PhD student in psychiatric epidemiology at Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatics at Karolinska Institutet and first author of the study.

Many are hospitalized

Miriam Martini.
Photo credit: Gunilla Sonnebring.
Something that Miriam Martini thinks is particularly worrying is that 32 out of 100 women with autism have been threatened as a result of their mental illness, compared to 19 out of 100 autistic men. For people without autism, the corresponding figure was below five out of 100.

The study focused on young adults who are at a cruel time in life as many mental health problems increase in scope, while the transition to adulthood often means access to care, Miriam Martini says.

The health care for young adults needs to be expanded, especially for women with autism, so that mental illness can be detected in time to avoid the symptoms of worsening and resulting in hospitalization, says Miriam Martini.

The reason why autistic women are more severely affected by mental illness than but with autism is not clear, but in the study the researchers point to several possible factors.

Previous research has shown that women with autism to a greater extent use compensatory behavior to camouflage their autism, which may be because women generally tend to adapt to environmental expectations. It shares diagnosis and help, which can affect their mental health.

Autistic women are not caught by the care

Another possible explanation may be that it is difficult to detect autism in women using the diagnostic criteria.

It may be that autism takes on different expressions in women than in men, which means that women are not caught up with the help of today's diagnostic criteria. This is something we need to research more about, says Miriam Martini.

The study was funded by MQ Mental Health Research. Some of the study authors have received compensation from industrial companies outside the scope of the current study.

Source/Credit: Karolinska Institutet


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