Research suggests autism increases risk for COVID complications

Published: Jun. 8, 2022 at 6:30 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - New research indicates autistic people are at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.

A Vermont doctor says she’s witnessing the pattern firsthand.

Dr. Melissa Houser opened her nonprofit, All Brains Belong VT, a little less than a year ago in the middle of the pandemic in Montpelier. Her practice prioritizes inclusive health care for patients whose brains function differently than what’s considered “typical.” That includes people with autism.

She says she treats so many people with invisible disabilities, she has a unique perspective that supports this new research.

Of Houser’s 175 patients, about 120 identify as neurodivergent. She says about 80% of that group are presenting with long COVID-like symptoms: tiredness, shortness of breath and chest pain, to name a few.

“We have over 100 people who are really suffering,” Houser said.

Autism, ADHD and dyslexia are all neurodivergencies. Houser says 1 in 5 of all individuals identifies as neurodivergent.

“It is well-established in literature that neurodivergent patients have more autoimmune disease. Often, they may not be symptomatic until their autoimmune disease gets triggered,” she explained.

COVID-19 can be one of those triggers.

Many scientists believe long COVID is an autoimmune response to the virus in which the body attacks itself.

Therefore, neurodivergent people are at increased risk of long COVID.

“This is not widely discussed including by health care providers,” Houser said. “So I think it’s really important that we start talking about this.”

Houser says, more importantly, primary care physicians need to start talking about it with their neurodivergent patients.

“I was frustrated that I didn’t hear about this before because I think my precautions would have been a little bit different in the beginning,” said Joy Redington of Northfield.

Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age and only recently having realized she’s autistic, Redington, 46, says before switching her care to All Brains Belong, doctors dismissed her long COVID-like symptoms.

She contracted COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic and a year and a half later, she’s still battling brain fog, fatigue, body aches and respiratory issues.

“The misconception is that autism is more just brain-related. It is kind of all in your brain, but what does your brain do for your body? It controls your whole body,” Redington said.

Houser urges her neurodivergent patients to remain extra cautious, especially as pandemic restrictions ease.

“We all wish that this were over,” Houser said, “but it’s not over.”

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