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Mental health conditions seen in 78% of children with autism

March 1, 2021

More than three-quarters of children with autism have a mental health condition, significantly higher than children with an intellectual disability, those with special health care needs or the general population, a recent study found.

Using the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, researchers analyzed data from more than 42,000 caregivers of children ages 3-17. The sample included parents or caregivers of 1,131 children with autism spectrum disorder.

About 78% of the children with autism had at least one mental health condition and 49% had multiple conditions. In comparison, about 14% of children without autism had at least one mental health condition and 6% had multiple conditions.

Mental health conditions were seen at a young age with a prevalence of 45% among 3- to 5-year-olds with autism and increased with age. About 81% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 86% of 12- to 17-year-olds had at least one mental health condition.

The most common condition was a behavioral/conduct problem, reported in about 61% of the children with autism followed by 48% who had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 40% with anxiety and 16% with depression.

Females with autism were more likely to experience anxiety than males. Behavioral problems were seen more commonly in children with both autism and intellectual impairments compared to those without intellectual impairments. Children with autism who had multiple adverse childhood experiences had greater odds of anxiety and ADHD.

Each of the conditions studied except for substance abuse was significantly more common in children with autism compared to those with intellectual disability, special health care needs and all other children.

Authors stressed the need for early identification and intervention of mental health conditions in children with autism.

“The longer mental health conditions are allowed to exist and worsen, the harder they are going to be to treat,” lead author Connor M. Kerns, Ph.D., said in a news release. “It's much better to catch them early. Right now, we don't have a great system for doing that.”

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