A new risk factor for severe COVID-19 has been identified – are you at risk? Study finding

Autism is characterised by difficulties in socialising says doctor

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ASD is a developmental disability associated with social, communication, and behavioural challenges. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that while all people with autism will have similar problems, overall their condition will impact them in different ways. Some people may be able to lead fairly independent lives while others will require a lifetime of specialist support.

The new study found that adults on the autism spectrum and those with intellectual disability or mental health conditions may be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing more severe illness if infected.

The SAGE published study investigated autistic adults and other adults with intellectual disability aged between 20 to 64 years and concluded that they have higher risk factors for COVID-19.

Research scientist at the Autism Institute and lead author on the study, Whitney Schott, explained that: “Results show that individuals on the autism spectrum, those with ID, and those with MHC are at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 and/or more severe illness if they contract COVID-19.“

Findings on comorbidities align with previously reported estimates of higher comorbidity prevalence among autistic individuals and adults with ID or MHC.”

Researchers used data from Medicaid to look at whether these groups were more likely to experience risk factors for COVID-19.

They noted that though the Medicaid data examined is from 2008-2012, risk factors, such as living in a residential facility, are not likely to have lessened over time.

“These high-risk populations should be recognised by clinicians and these groups should be prioritised for vaccine outreach and education,” said Schott.

Additionally, awareness of risks can help with decision-making in caring for these populations.

The study has brought to light the higher prevalence in many specific health conditions, not just autism, that may put someone at risk of severe illness from contracting COVID-19.

Other variables that may account to contracting the virus were taken into account when investigating the risk to those with intellectual diseases.

Those included living in primary care shortage areas; living in a residential facility; regularly receiving services in the home from outside caregivers; having had a long hospitalisation, whether psychiatric or inpatient in the last five years; and having had avoidable hospitalisations.

The researchers also assessed risk factors for developing severe illness from COVID-19.

The study also found that autistic adults without intellectual disabilities had a higher risk of having underlying health conditions that may cause more severe illness from COVID-19.

The authors state that this risk should, therefore, encourage policymakers to prioritise autistic persons and people with intellectual disabilities in booster vaccination programmes.

Dr Lindsay Shea, leader of the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the Autism Institute and co-author of the report, said: “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.“

It is important to intensify outreach efforts to vaccinate these vulnerable groups.”

Trusted health care providers with preexisting relationships are seen to be in the best position to help those on the autism spectrum be bumped up the waiting list for a third coronavirus jab.

Dr Shea said that efforts need to be made to provide up-to-date information regarding safe practices, such as wearing face-coverings, maintaining physical distance and increasing ventilation.

Dr Robert Hendren, a psychiatrist and the director of the program for research on neurodevelopment and translational outcomes at the University of California in San Francisco looked into the difficulties of coping with autism over the pandemic.

He said: “Sometimes it is difficult for people with ASD to wear masks and keep social distancing, [and they place] themselves and others at increased risk of spreading or acquiring COVID-19.”

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