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The Penn State College of Medicine researchers said the likelihood of an ER visit for a teen with autism increased five-fold from 2005 to 2013.
The findings suggest that young people with autism may require better access to primary and specialist care, the researchers said.
"We believe if their regular medical and behavioral specialist services served them better, a big portion of them would end up with fewer emergency department visits," said study author Guodong Liu, an assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State.
In the United States, it's estimated that 1 in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder. This is the term for a range of conditions that may involve problems with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks. Frequently, other medical and mental health issues accompany the disorder.
Liu's team analyzed nine years of private insurance health-care claims of 12- to 21-year-olds. The researchers found that ER use by adolescents with autism rose from 3 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2013. During that same time, ER use by teens without autism held steady at about 3 percent.
Older teens with autism were much more likely to visit an ER than younger ones -- one-third vs. 10 percent, the study found.
The researchers also discovered that the proportion of ER visits by teens with autism for a mental health crisis rose from 12 percent in 2005 to 22 percent in 2013.
Liu said puberty and the transition to adulthood may be especially difficult for children with autism, and their parents and other caregivers might not be aware that they need extra guidance and support during this vulnerable time.
In response to stress, some teens with autism may harm themselves, Liu said.
"The consequence is they're more likely to end up in the emergency department," he said in a Penn State news release.
The study was partly funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. It was published recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: Penn State, news release, Feb. 28, 2017