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Sex Differences in Mental Health Problems and Psychiatric Hospitalization in Autistic Young Adults

JAMA Psychiatry. 2022 Oct 26. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.3475. Online ahead of print.


IMPORTANCE: Psychiatric disorders are common among autistic children and adults. Little is known about sex differences in psychiatric disorders and hospitalization in early adulthood.

OBJECTIVE: To examine sex differences in psychiatric diagnoses and hospitalizations in autistic compared with nonautistic young adults.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: This population-based cohort study assessed all individuals born in Sweden between 1985 and 1997. A total of 1 335 753 individuals, including 20 841 autistic individuals (7129 [34.2%] female individuals), were followed up from age 16 through 24 years between 2001 and 2013. Analysis took place between June 2021 and August 2022.

EXPOSURES: Autism was defined as having received at least 1 clinical diagnosis of autism based on the International Classification of Diseases.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: The cumulative incidence of 11 psychiatric diagnoses up until age 25 years was estimated, and birth year-standardized risk difference was used to compare autistic female and male individuals directly. Sex-specific birth year-adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) with 95% CIs were calculated using Cox regression. Analyses were repeated for inpatient diagnoses to assess psychiatric hospitalization.

RESULTS: Of 1 335 753 individuals included in this study, 650 314 (48.7%) were assigned female at birth. Autism was clinically diagnosed in 20 841 individuals (1.6%; 7129 [34.2%] female) with a mean (SD) age of 16.1 (5.1) years (17.0 [4.8] years in female individuals and 15.7 [5.2] years in male individuals) for the first recorded autism diagnosis. For most disorders, autistic female individuals were at higher risk for psychiatric diagnoses and hospitalizations. By age 25 years, 77 of 100 autistic female individuals and 62 of 100 autistic male individuals received at least 1 psychiatric diagnosis. Statistically significant standardized risk differences were observed between autistic female and male individuals for any psychiatric disorder (-0.18; 95% CI, -0.26 to -0.10) and specifically for anxiety, depressive, and sleep disorders. Risk differences were larger among autistic than nonautistic individuals. Compared with nonautistic same-sex individuals, autistic female individuals (HR range [95% CI], 3.17 [2.50-4.04.]-20.78 [18.48-23.37]) and male individuals (HR range [95% CI], 2.98 [2.75-3.23]-18.52 [17.07-20.08]) were both at increased risk for all psychiatric diagnoses. Any psychiatric hospitalization was statistically significantly more common in autistic female individuals (32 of 100) compared with autistic male individuals (19 of 100). However, both autistic female and male individuals had a higher relative risk for psychiatric hospitalization compared with nonautistic female and male individuals for all disorders (female individuals: HR range [95% CI], 5.55 [4.63-6.66]-26.30 [21.50-32.16]; male individuals: HR range [95% CI], 3.79 [3.22-4.45]-29.36 [24.04-35.87]).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: These findings highlight the need for profound mental health services among autistic young adults. Autistic female individuals, who experience more psychiatric difficulties at different levels of care, require increased clinical surveillance and support.

PMID:36287538 | DOI:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.3475

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