The Mental and Physical Health of Older Adults With a Genetic Predisposition for Autism

Gavin R. Stewart*, Anne Corbett, Clive Ballard, Byron Creese, Dag Aarsland, Adam Hampshire, Rebecca A. Charlton, Francesca Happé

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Autism commonly aggregates in families, with twin studies estimating heritability to be around 80%. Subclinical autism-like characteristics have also been found at elevated rates in relatives of autistic probands. Physical and psychiatric conditions have been reported at elevated rates in autistic children and adults, and also in their relatives. However, to date, there has been no exploration of how aging may affect this pattern. This study examined cross-sectional data from the ongoing online PROTECT study. A total of 20,220 adults aged 50 years and older reported whether they have an autistic first-degree relative. In total, 739 older adults reported having an autistic first-degree relative (AFDR group) and 11,666 were identified as having no family history of any neurodevelopmental disorder (NFD group). The AFDR group demonstrated significantly higher frequencies of self-reported psychiatric diagnoses and a greater total number of co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses than the NFD group. Furthermore, the AFDR group reported elevated current self-report symptoms of depression, anxiety, traumatic experience, and post-traumatic stress than the NFD group. By contrast, few differences between AFDR and NFD groups were observed in physical health conditions, and no differences were observed in the total number of co-occurring physical health diagnoses. These findings suggest that adults who have an AFDR may be at greater risk of poor mental, but not physical, health in later life. Older adults with autistic relatives may benefit from close monitoring to mitigate this susceptibility and to provide timely intervention. Autism Res 2020, 13: 641–654.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)641-654
Number of pages14
JournalAutism research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020


  • aging
  • ASD
  • autism
  • BAP
  • broad autism phenotype
  • mental health
  • older adults
  • physical health
  • psychiatric conditions


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