Adults with autism face higher COVID risk: researchers

'These high-risk populations should be recognized by clinicians and these groups should be prioritized for vaccine outreach and education.'

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read September 1, 2021
autism covid

People with autism are at a higher risk of getting COVID, and of severe outcomes once they're infected, according to new research. GETTY

A new study has found autistic adults have multiple risk factors that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 than the general population and more prone to experience severe illness once infected.

The research, published in the journal Autism, said these risks — including higher odds of living in a residential facility, of requiring in-home caregiver assistance and of having had an avoidable hospitalization — are shared by adults with intellectual disabilities and those with mental health diagnoses. Identifying and increasing awareness of these risks is essential to informing health policy, clinical practice and making decisions essential to ensuring proper care is provided.

“These high-risk populations should be recognized by clinicians and these groups should be prioritized for vaccine outreach and education,” said Whitney Schott, lead author of the study and a research scientist at the Autism Institute.

An estimated one out of every 66 Canadian children and youth are diagnosed with autism, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, meaning between one and two per cent of the population is on the spectrum. The neuro-developmental disorder encompasses a range of conditions that can impair the ability to communicate and navigate social interactions and causes repetitive behaviours that may limit interests and activities. Boys are four to five times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder, which typically presents itself early in childhood. Autism is viewed as a spectrum because of the wide range of symptoms, deficits and abilities patients experience.

To ascertain risk factors, researchers were able to use Medicaid data from 2008-2012 because the prevailing risk factors are unlikely to change with time. Searching Medicaid for adults between the ages of 20-64 with autism, intellectual disability, mental health conditions and no mental health conditions helped the team estimate prevalence and logistic regressions among these groups and identify the odds of increased risks.

From a random sample of data, they found 372,807 people with any mental health condition and 683,778 without any such conditions. Looking at the full population of autistic adults and adults with an intellectual disability, they found 31,101 had autism, 52,049 had autism and an intellectual disability and 563,558 had an intellectual disability but not autism. All three of these groups were more likely to live in a residential facility, require outside care and have had avoidable hospitalizations relative to the general, neurotypical population. Those with mental health conditions were also three times more likely to have a high-risk health condition.

“Care providers, policymakers and advocates should be aware of the higher rates — among autistic adults, adults with intellectual disability and adults with mental health diagnoses — of risk factors for contracting COVID-19 and more severe illness if infected,” said Lindsay Shea, co-author of the study, director of the Policy and Analytics Center and leader of the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the Autism Institute.

It is vital to reach and vaccinate these high-risk groups, Shea said, with pre-existing relationships between patients and trusted providers offering the ideal avenue. She said every effort must be made to communicate the latest information to patients on public health safety, including the importance of vaccination, wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and avoiding crowds to ensure their safety.

For more information on autism, support or to connect with others, visit Autism Canada.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca