What is the Life Expectancy of People with Autism

Discover the factors impacting the life expectancy of a person with autism and how to enhance their living conditions.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
April 19, 2024
Published On
April 19, 2024

Understanding Autism Life Expectancy

The topic of life expectancy in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex and multifaceted issue. Numerous factors influence the duration of life for those with autism, leading to a variation in the average lifespan of this population.

Factors Influencing Life Expectancy

Over a 20-year period (1998-2018), the average age at death for individuals with ASD was 39 years, and 6.4% of individuals died during this period. Causes of death included chronic conditions (such as cancer and heart disease), accidents (such as choking on food and accidental poisoning), and health complications due to medication side effects. Even after controlling for age and health status, significant predictors of mortality were early childhood levels of impairments in social reciprocity and high levels of functional impairments at the start of the study period [1].

Autistic adults have an increased susceptibility to physical, mental, and social health issues compared to their non-autistic peers. They are more likely to have chronic health conditions such as seizure disorders, hypertension, and allergies, as well as mental health difficulties like anxiety, bipolar disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenic disorder.

The level of support needed by an individual with autism can also greatly impact their life expectancy. Autistic individuals with high support needs have shorter life expectancies compared to those who can manage independently, with the latter group living almost 20 years longer on average.

Overall, autistic people have significantly lower life expectancies than the rest of the population, ranging from 39.5 years to 58 years, compared to the global average of approximately 72 years in 2022.

In addition to these factors, autistic individuals are more likely to experience neurological disorders like epilepsy and hydrocephalus, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychotic disorders, trauma disorders, and an increased risk of suicide.

Understanding the factors that influence the life expectancy of individuals with autism helps to identify areas of focus for improving their quality and length of life. The next sections will delve into the health challenges and healthcare barriers faced by individuals with autism, the predictors of mortality, and ways to improve their life expectancy.

Health Challenges in Autism

People with autism face a unique set of health challenges that can influence their quality of life, daily functioning, and overall lifespan. Such challenges are multifaceted, encompassing both physical and mental health issues.

Physical Health Issues

Autistic individuals have a higher susceptibility to chronic physical health conditions compared to their non-autistic peers. Common ailments include seizure disorders, hypertension, allergies, neurological disorders like epilepsy and hydrocephalus, sleep disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders.

In addition, issues related to immune function, metabolism, and brain function abnormalities are prevalent in the autistic population and can significantly impact daily functioning, social communication, and behavior. These physical health problems persist throughout the lifespan and are intrinsically linked to the emergence of autism.

While autism is traditionally viewed as a behavioral and neuropsychiatric condition, growing evidence suggests that many autism-related symptoms and behaviors can be directly caused by these physical health-related problems.

Mental Health Concerns

Alongside physical health challenges, individuals with autism often grapple with mental health difficulties. They are more likely to experience mental health disorders such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenic disorder. In addition, they face a higher risk of experiencing trauma disorders and suicidal tendencies [3].

Interestingly, poor health outcomes in autism are not solely explained by the fact that individuals with autism are less able to communicate their symptoms to healthcare professionals. Instead, physical and mental health problems are deeply intertwined with the nature of autism itself [4].

Understanding these health challenges is vital for improving the life expectancy and quality of life of people with autism. By recognizing and addressing these issues early on, it's possible to mitigate their impact and provide better support to those living with autism.

Barriers to Healthcare Access

When addressing the question, "what is the life expectancy of a person with autism?", it's critical to consider the challenges this population faces in accessing healthcare. These barriers can significantly impact the health outcomes and life expectancy of autistic individuals.

Communication Challenges

Communication can be a significant hurdle in delivering effective healthcare to adults with autism. Autistic adults frequently experience communication barriers with healthcare providers, which can hinder their ability to express their health needs and concerns effectively.

This can result from a multitude of factors, including the individual's verbal abilities, the healthcare provider's understanding of autism, and the structure of the healthcare system itself. There is a lack of support and understanding from healthcare providers, including general practitioners, which can hinder access to appropriate healthcare for autistic adults. Clinicians may lack knowledge about autism and be unwilling to communicate effectively with autistic patients.

Moreover, the physical environment of healthcare settings can be a barrier for autistic adults, as sensory sensitivity and environmental factors such as lighting, sound, and physical closeness can cause anxiety and discomfort.

Transitioning to Adult Healthcare

Another barrier to healthcare for autistic individuals is the transition from pediatric to adult healthcare services. This life change can pose challenges and create barriers for autistic adults in accessing appropriate healthcare.

The transition period may be overwhelming, with limited coordination and attention to personal needs. This can lead to gaps in care, missed appointments, and a decline in health management, all of which can negatively impact life expectancy.

These barriers emphasize the need for healthcare systems to evolve and adapt to the unique needs of autistic adults. Increased awareness, improved communication strategies, and smoother transitions to adult healthcare could contribute to better health outcomes and improve the overall life expectancy for individuals with autism.

Predictors of Mortality

Determining the life expectancy of a person with autism is complex due to various influencing factors. Two significant predictors of mortality among individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) include early childhood impairments and functional limitations.

Early Childhood Impairments

Studies have shown that impairments in social reciprocity during early childhood can predict a higher risk of mortality in adulthood for individuals with ASD. Notably, even after controlling for age and health status, significant predictors of mortality in individuals with ASD were early childhood levels of impairments in social reciprocity and high levels of functional impairments at the start of the study period.

Further, the severity of impairments in social reciprocity in early childhood had a 27% higher risk of mortality during the 20-year study period.

Functional Limitations

Limited self-sufficiency in activities of daily living was another important predictor of mortality for adults with ASD. Higher levels of independence in activities of daily living reduced the risk of mortality by 6.5% over 20 years.

Moreover, age and health were major factors that predicted death in the study. Being in fair or poor health at the start of the study conferred a 46% greater risk of dying over the next 20 years as compared with being in excellent health at the start.

Interestingly, no significant differences were found in mortality risk between individuals with ASD and with intellectual disability (ID) compared to those without ID. The presence of ID tends not to be a malleable factor in predicting mortality.

Understanding these predictors of mortality can lead to improved interventions and support systems for individuals with autism, thereby enhancing their quality of life and potentially extending their life expectancy.

Improving Life Expectancy

As the question, "what is the life expectancy of a person with autism?" persists, it's important to note that the life expectancy can be improved through appropriate support and intervention, as well as recognizing health needs.

Support and Intervention

Autistic individuals who receive appropriate support may have lower stress levels, decreased risk for stress-related illnesses, mental health issues, and early death, thereby improving their quality of life. This support can come in many forms, from professional therapeutic interventions to support in daily life from family members and caregivers.

Addressing common health issues, maladaptive behaviors, and providing early intervention may help reduce the risk of early death for individuals with autism. Early intervention can improve primary symptoms of autism, such as impairments in social-emotional reciprocity, and potentially have a long-term impact on symptom severity and adaptive behaviors into adulthood.

Research indicates that adults with autism spectrum disorder who are employed are more likely to improve their daily living activity skills over time compared to those who are unemployed. Expectations set by employers for health, personal hygiene, and other work responsibilities related to daily living activity skills may play a role in this improvement.

Recognizing Health Needs

Recognizing the health needs of individuals with autism is a crucial aspect of improving their life expectancy. Predictors of mortality for individuals with autism include additional difficulties with social skills, communication, and self-care, along with environmental factors such as employment status.

Parents or caregivers who recognize signs of poor health and unmet healthcare needs may help reduce the risk of early death in adults with autism. This involves regular health screenings, prompt attention to health concerns, and access to suitable healthcare services.

Autistic individuals who receive appropriate support and intervention have the potential to improve their overall health and well-being, leading to a longer life expectancy. This emphasizes the importance of ongoing support and early intervention in improving the life expectancy of individuals with autism.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6713622/

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7373620/

[3]: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-to-know-about-autism-and-lower-life-expectancy-6748941

[4]: https://www.thinkingautism.org.uk/addressing-poor-health-high-death-rates-in-autism/

[5]: https://www.songbirdcare.com/articles/autism-life-expectancy