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Bearing a confusing burden: The prevalence of depression in those with autism

Canadian psychologists seek to spread awareness on the nature of depression in those on the autistic spectrum.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is very enigmatic in regards to our current understanding. Even the nature of autism being perceived on a spectrum has scientists struggling on how to categorize and collect data on it. A global estimate by the World Health Organization in 2017 indicates that 1 in 160 individuals are diagnosed with ASD. Perhaps an even more elusive figure is rigid data on the prevalence of depression in those with autism.

By ignoring or failing to address depression in those with ASD, this can lead to more internal conflict and misrepresentation in society for those burdened by the disorder. Therefore, researchers reviewed ASD and depression-related data in November of 2016 and recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

Analyzing previous studies

They combed through five large science databases utilizing specific criteria to gather the most reliable and, more importantly, relatable data for analysis. Out of a total 7,857 articles pulled, 66 articles met the criteria for inclusion in this data review.

Two key terms were also vital in parsing out the best data possible: “lifetime prevalence” and “current prevalence” of depressive disorders in individuals. Lifetime prevalence refers to those who have met criteria for a unipolar depressive disorder in their lifetime. Current prevalence refers to those who have met criteria for a unipolar depressive disorder at the time of their assessment or within a three-month period. Previous diagnoses garnered from the articles included standard interview format, clinical diagnosis, or self-reporting. They used the 66 studies with demographic variables such as age, sex, race, and percentage of those above and below average IQ, to draw conclusions.

Older autistic individuals with higher IQ had higher rates of depression

Overall, a higher mean age was associated with higher lifetime prevalence of depression as well as a higher IQ measurement. It has been speculated that those with ASD that can more intelligently express themselves or have a better comprehension of their disorder are a greater risk for developing depressive disorders. The correlation was not as strong in comparing age and IQ with current prevalence rates, however. In both situations where lifetime and current prevalence symptoms were reported by the individual and not a caregiver, the rates were much higher.

These results reinforce a problem not readily understood by the scientific community. The problem is a sizeable one in this population studied and should be addressed through further study. The researchers do outline some of the strengths of this study to be noted for any future endeavors such as the comprehensive review of the literature at hand through a very methodical data screening approach. Also, in keeping with the global scale of this data, studies chosen were not geographically exclusive, adding to the diversity of the data. The sample size in this meta-analysis was small which could be viewed as a limitation but that does not diminish the importance of these individuals in a population.

Preventative care important for different ages

Researchers hope this analysis, perceived by them to be the first of its kind, should shed a light for healthcare providers as to where to apply crucial preventative care among differing age ranges in ASD populations as well as follow-up care for those individuals stamped with a current prevalence of depressive disorder. Taking the mystery out of ASD will require further study based on the hard work of past study analysis.

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  1. Chandrasekhar, T., and Sikich, L. (2015). Challenges in the diagnosis and treatment of depression in autism spectrum disorders across the lifespan. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17(2), 219-227.
  2. Hudson, C.C., Hall, L., Harkness, K.L. (2018). Prevalence of Depressive Disorders in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a Meta-Analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.


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