Study Reveals Kids With Autism May Have A Higher Risk Of Hospitalization From Air Pollution

With symptoms often emerging in young children by the age of two or three, Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as "a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication." As a developmental disorder, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the condition is characterized by neurological differences within the brain. From 2016 to 2018, prevalence rates for autism in the United States went from 1 in every 54 children to 1 in every 44 children (per CDC).

Researchers from a new study published in BMJ Open looked at government health data of hospital admissions related to autism in kids ages 5 through 14 over the course of four years between 2011 and 2015 in Korea (via EurekaAlert!). The study team also gathered national air quality data to determine if short-term air pollution exposure had an effect on hospital admission numbers in children with autism due to aggravated symptoms including hyperactivity, aggression, or self-injury, reports HealthDay.

How policy changes may reduce hospitalization rates for children with autism

Specifically, the study team analyzed data pertaining to national levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and ozone (O3) in South Korea over the course of six days (via EurekaAlert!). Their findings showed a link between short-term exposure to all three elements and an increased risk of autism-related hospitalization in children by 29%, particularly in young boys. For the duration of the study period, a daily average of seven boys were calculated to have been admitted to the hospital for autism, compared to a daily average of 1.6 girls. Nitrogen dioxide was found to have the greatest impact.

The scientists acknowledged the limitations of the study in their research, stating that individual air pollution exposure levels were not measured and that social stigma may have influenced whether patients with milder ASD symptoms received psychiatric treatment. Even so, the researchers highlighted how changes in environmental policy to decrease air pollution levels may be beneficial for young children with autism. "These results emphasize that reduction of air pollution exposure needs to be considered for successful ASD symptom management, which is important with regard to quality of life and economic costs," as written in the research.