A recent study investigating injury mortality in people with autism spectrum disorders delivers some surprising and disturbing results. According to the authors, swimming lessons for children with an autism diagnosis should be a priority.
A group of researchers from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York undertook an epidemiological study to fill this gap in our understanding. Led by Dr Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology, the team delved into data from the United States National Vital Statistics System.
Dr Li, who is the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, said of the results: “Despite the marked increase in the annual number of deaths occurring, autism-related deaths still may be severely underreported, particularly deaths from intentional injuries such as assaults, homicide, and suicide.”
Of the registered deaths, 28 percent were due to injury, the most common of which was suffocation. This was followed by asphyxiation, then drowning. In fact, those three causes accounted for almost 80 percent of total injury mortality in children with ASD. More than 40 percent of these incidents occurred at home or in residential institutions.
The study’s findings, published this week in the American Journal of Public Health, are worrying:
When asked why drowning should be such a common cause of death for individuals with ASD, Dr Li says: “With impaired communication and social skills, autistic kids tend to seek relief of their heightened anxiety from the serenity of water bodies. Unfortunately, this behaviour too often leads to tragedies.”
Children are often diagnosed with ASD at the age of 2 or 3. At this point, Dr Li says that “paediatricians and parents should immediately help enrol the child in swimming classes, before any behavioural therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy.”
He continues: “Swimming ability for kids with autism is an imperative survival skill.”
Although the research used a great deal of data, there are some gaps in the results. Joseph Guan, the lead author and a student in epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, says: “Our study was limited to death certificate data. While the numbers are startling, autism as a contributing cause of death is likely undercounted because […] the accuracy of information on death certificates filed by coroners varies.”
Despite the shortfalls in the study’s data, the findings and conclusions are likely to influence recommendations for the parents of children with ASD. Something as simple as swimming lessons really could be a life-saver for some children.