Compared with neurotypicals or non-autistic people, young autistic men and women face a significantly higher risk of being hospitalized because of mental illness. In a new study, researchers found that autistic women are far more susceptible to hospitalization than their male counterparts due to depression, anxiety, and self-harm, among nine other psychiatric conditions.
In the JAMA Psychiatry study, researchers from Karolinska Institute included 1.3 million participants from Sweden who fell within the ages of 16 to 24. Around 48% of them were assigned female at birth and 20,841 were diagnosed with autism. The study analysis took place between June 2021 and August 2022. The data revealed that by age 25, 77 out of 100 autistic women were diagnosed with at least one mental disorder — as opposed to 62 out of 100 autistic men.
Another worrying fact from the data was that 32 out of 100 autistic women had been hospitalized because of mental health struggles. On the other hand, among autistic men, it was 19 out of 100. For neurotypicals, the number was as low as five out of 100.
“Healthcare for young adults needs to be expanded, especially for autistic women, so that mental illness can be detected in time to avoid worsening of symptoms resulting in hospitalization,” said Miriam Martini, a doctoral student at Karolinska Institute, in a press release.
At present, the researchers are still not able to narrow down the reasons why autistic women are far more vulnerable to severe mental health issues than their male counterparts. “It may be that autism manifests differently in women than in men, which means that women are not detected using today’s diagnostic criteria. This is something we need to do more research on,” added Martini.
However, a major limitation of the study was that the participants were only followed up until they were 16 years old. That meant other mental disorders that might have had a later onset during their adulthood did not get covered in this large cohort study.