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Mental health conditions among kids with autism are on the rise, study finds

Behavioral issues and anxiety are the most common concerns for young ones

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Photo (c) Mehmet Hilmi Barcin - Getty Images
Kids’ mental health has been a source of concern in recent years, and now a new study conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia has found that it could be even more of a concern for kids with autism

According to the researchers, nearly 80 percent of kids with autism are also dealing with a mental health condition, like anxiety or ADHD. 

“For a long time, mental health in kids with autism was neglected because the focus was on autism,” said researcher Dr. Connor Kerns. “There’s so much greater awareness now, but we don’t have enough people trained to provide mental health treatments to kids on the autism spectrum. We need to bridge these two systems and the different sets of providers that tend to treat these children.” 

Kids with autism are struggling with mental health

To better understand how kids with autism are struggling with mental health, the researchers analyzed responses from nearly 42,000 participants involved in the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health; these responses included data on more than 1,100 kids with autism between the ages of three and 17.

The researchers learned that nearly 80 percent of the kids involved in the study had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and nearly 45 percent of kids at preschool age were struggling with mental health. Behavioral issues were the most common mental health condition affecting kids with autism, followed by ADHD and anxiety. 

To see the prevalence of mental health conditions among kids with autism, the researchers compared these results to general mental health concerns among all children. They learned that just over 14 percent of kids without autism struggled with mental health. Additionally, when looking specifically at anxiety, kids with special health care needs and kids with intellectual disabilities were three and six times less likely, respectively, to have anxiety than kids with autism. 

“There’s something specific about autism that is increasing this mental health burden, and it’s true not only for anxiety, but also for depression, behavior problems, and attention problems,” said Dr. Kerns. “This is a special population that requires special attention.” 

While getting treatment for mental health has been found to be difficult for all kids, the researchers hope that these findings spur changes in the systems currently in place. The earlier that kids with autism receive support services, the more likely they are to reap the benefits of such treatments. 

“The longer mental health conditions are allowed to exist and worsen, the harder they are going to be to treat,” Dr. Kerns said. “It’s much better to catch them early. Right now, we don’t have a great system for doing that.” 

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