New Study Finds Surprising Link Between Severe Learning Disabilities and Autism

A new study conducted in England has shown a surprisingly strong link among those with learning disabilities and those with autism.

The study, conducted by Dr. Terry Brugha of the University of Leicester, involved combining information collected on a sample of people living with learning disabilities in private households and communal care establishments with information from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) of 2007.

The study concluded that about 60% of men with profound learning disabilities and 43% of women with profound learning disabilities were also autistic.

“We were surprised by how many adults with moderate to profound learning disability had autism because previous estimates pointed to lower rates in this group. Because they form a very small part of the adult population, when we added these new findings to the rate we had previously found in adults living in private households, and able to take part in our national survey in 2007, the overall percentage of adults in England with autism did not increase significantly over our 2007 estimate of 1%.”

“Until now, routine statistics have not been gathered on the numbers of people with learning disabilities who also have autism leaving this as a hidden problem,” said Sally-Ann Cooper, Professor of Learning Disabilities at the University of Glasgow.  “Our study clearly shows that the more severe to profound an adult’s learning disability is, the more likely they will be found to have autism if actually assessed.”

This ‘invisibility’ was a result of the many adults living in private households with either relatives or caregivers. The study found that 42% of men and 29% of women with severe learning disabilities living in private households were found to be autistic, all of which would not have been surveyed otherwise.

The new information will be of particular importance for those who plan and produce services to support those with learning disabilities in both public and private settings, as well as help improve legislation on the matter. In March 2011, England published a national strategy for autism and guidance for the condition, with the objective to improve the quality of services provided to adults with autism. These improved guidelines include training protocol for staff that has the responsibility to identify people with autism and understand their care.

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