Study investigates premature death of Autistic people in the UK

A new study has confirmed that Autistic people experience reduced life expectancy – but that the number of years of life lost may not be as high as previously claimed.

The research, published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, is billed as the first to estimate the life expectancy and years of life lost by Autistic people living in the UK.

autism, autism awareness, mental health

The study, led by UCL researchers, used anonymised data from GP practices throughout the UK to study people who received an autism diagnosis between 1989 to 2019. They studied 17,130 people diagnosed as autistic without a learning disability and 6,450 participants diagnosed as autistic with a learning disability. They then compared these groups with people of the same age and sex, who had not been diagnosed as autistic.

The researchers found that Autistic men without a learning disability had an average estimated life expectancy of 74.6 years, and Autistic women without a learning disability, around 76.8 years.

Meanwhile, the estimated life expectancy for people diagnosed with autism and learning disability was around 71.7 years for men and 69.6 years for women.

These figures compare to the usual life expectancy of around 80 years for men and around 83 years for women living in the UK.

The findings provide the first evidence that diagnosed Autistic people were more likely to die prematurely in the UK across the time period studied, indicating an urgent need to address inequalities that disproportionately affect autistic people.

However, the new estimates also suggest that the widely reported statistic that Autistic people live 16 years less on average is likely to be incorrect.

UCL’s Professor Josh Stott, lead investigator of the study, said: ‘Autism itself does not, to our knowledge, directly reduce life expectancy, but we know that autistic people experience health inequalities, meaning that they often don’t get the support and help that they need when they need it. We wanted to explore whether this impacted the average life expectancy for diagnosed autistic people living in the UK.

‘Our findings show that some autistic people were dying prematurely, which impacted the overall life expectancy. However, we know that when they have the right support, many Autistic people live long, healthy and happy lives. Although our findings show important inequalities, we were concerned about frightening statistics that are often quoted, and it is important to provide more realistic information.

‘We do need to find out why some autistic people are dying prematurely so that we can identify ways to prevent this from happening.’

Autistic people have differences in their social communication and social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests and activities.

Many autistic people require adjustments to be made to ensure equal access to healthcare, employment, and local authority support.

Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, and can find it hard to explain to others when they are experiencing pain or discomfort. This can mean that health problems go undetected.

There are numerous reports of social exclusion, difficulties accessing support, and inappropriate care being given, as described in Baroness Hollins’ recent report.

The researchers have previously published a study which found that the true number of autistic people in England may be more than double the number often cited in national health policy documents.

Consequently, they acknowledge that the new research may overestimate the reduction in life expectancy experienced by Autistic people on average.

Professor Stott said: ‘Very few Autistic adults have been diagnosed, meaning that this study only focuses on a fraction of the total autistic population.

‘Those who are diagnosed may be those with greater support needs and more co-occurring health conditions than Autistic people on average.

‘We think this is particularly the case for women diagnosed with Autism and learning disability – the larger reduction in life expectancy may reflect a disproportionate underdiagnosis of Autism and/or learning disability in women.

‘It’s likely that not all autistic people experience a reduced life expectancy – indeed, some Autistic people may be better at sticking to healthy routines than average, potentially increasing their life expectancy.’

Image: karelinlestrange

More on this topic:

PDA Autistic people experiencing poor mental health and service barriers

Ombudsman finds councils not offering choice for parents of SEND children


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top