An investigation of the diet, exercise, sleep, BMI, and health outcomes of autistic adults.
Molecular autism 2021 ; 12: 31.
PubMed ID : 33964967
PMCID : PMC8106173
Studies of autistic children suggest that restricted eating, reduced physical activity, and sleep disorders are common; however, no studies attempt to broadly describe the diet, exercise, and sleep patterns of autistic adults or consider relationships between lifestyle behaviors and the widely reported increased risks of obesity and chronic conditions. To address this, the authors developed the largest study of lifestyle patterns of autistic adults and assessed their relationships to body mass index, health outcomes, and family history.
We administered an anonymized, online survey to n = 2386 adults (n = 1183 autistic) aged 16-90 years of age. We employed Fisher's exact tests and binomial logistic regression to describe diet, exercise, and sleep patterns; mediation of seizure disorders on sleep; body mass index (BMI); relationships of lifestyle factors to BMI, cardiovascular conditions, and diabetic conditions; and sex differences among autistic adults.
Autistic adults, and particularly autistic females, exhibit unhealthy diet, exercise, and sleep patterns; they are also more likely to be underweight or obese. Limited sleep duration and high rates of sleep disturbances cannot be accounted for by epilepsy or seizure disorders. Lifestyle factors are positively related to higher risk of cardiovascular conditions among autistic males, even more than family history.
Our sample may not be representative of all autistic and non-autistic people, as it primarily comprised individuals who are white, female, have a high school education or higher, and reside in the UK. Our sampling methods may also exclude some individuals on the autism spectrum, and particularly those with moderate to severe intellectual disability. This is a cross-sectional sample that can test for relationships between factors (e.g., lifestyle factors and health outcomes) but cannot assess the direction of these relationships.
Autistic adults are less likely to meet minimal health recommendations for diet, exercise, and sleep-and these unhealthy behaviors may relate to excess risk of cardiovascular conditions. Although the present study can only provide preliminary, correlational evidence, our findings suggest that diet, exercise, and sleep should be considered and further investigated as key targets for reducing the now widely reported and dramatically increased risks of health comorbidity and premature death among autistic individuals compared to others. Physicians should work cooperatively with patients to provide health education and develop individualized strategies for how to better manage challenges with diet, exercise, and sleep.