6.2 Health and ageing
Autistic adults may be susceptible to particular health problems and also to accidents for a range of reasons.
As you have learned in earlier weeks, epilepsy, depression and other health problems are ‘comorbid’ with autism. In addition, narrow food preferences may lead to an unhealthy diet, which could put the individual at risk of obesity and heart problems. Some autistic people are relatively insensitive to pain, which means that serious health problems such as a broken bone go unreported. In emergency situations (e.g. on admission to hospital), a person with autism may be unable to make decisions or insist on their treatment rights, and in rehabilitation, they may not appreciate the importance of following medical guidance.
Any of these factors could potentially affect life expectancy in autism, and there is some evidence for raised mortality (Howlin and Moss, 2012), although more work is needed.
Research is also lacking into how autism impacts conditions of older adulthood such as dementia, or whether older autistic adults have unique health needs. As more and more diagnosed adults are becoming elderly, this is an area that needs urgent attention. For instance, is dementia more common than in the general population, or might autism provide a protective function?