Because autism diagnoses have become more prevalent than they were thirty years ago, many children who currently are on the spectrum and adults who are just finding out that they are on the spectrum too are not old enough to show what happens to the autistic person in old age. Currently, the oldest living people worldwide with autism are in their sixties, so there’s at least another two decades before any questions can be answered with regards to aging and autism. There are some theories out there that might point the way as far as what types of research might be conducted on the topic a few decades down the road.
There is some assumption that skills will decrease as adults with autism reach their seventh and eight decades in life, but since that is normal for anyone, that doesn’t mean much. Children and adults with autism now will have a higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s as they get older because of the fact that their brains are already quite different from those who don’t have autism. The structures of the brain as well as the hormones and chemicals produced are as vastly different on the spectrum as they are in comparison to non-autistic peers.
In addition, medications or alcohol use/abuse can add to the problems that aging autistics will encounter. Since alcohol and drug use and abuse is already to tied to altered brain chemistry and physiology, the risks of changes in personality and moods almost doubles in people with autism. For those who suffer from anxiety and depression and have autism, suicide is a constant possibility the older they get. In short, many of the challenges they face are expected to increase or become more problematic with age, which is why it is so necessary for them to have an excellent support system when they are younger.
Many mid to high functioning adults on the spectrum currently lead fairly normal and extremely productive lives. They appear very normal to the outside world, and it is only through interaction with them that anyone can tell that they are just a little bit different. The majority have high I.Q.’s and work for government agencies where they are not required to interact with people, only solve problems, build, and invent things. Several others work in the capacity of engineers, logistics, programmers or they work with animals as vets. Their jobs are very high stress, and high stress jobs are linked to Alzheimers, which is why so many adults with autism are expected to be diagnosed with the disease later in life.
Brain shrinkage, often associated with dementia and other diseases that attack the brain in the late stages of life, is already present in people with autism. It’s on a much smaller scale and only affects certain areas, but it’s there. The brain still works, but is more compressed within the skull, and is a sign of the alterations the brain took starting at age two. This is another reason why scientists hypothesize that adults with autism will likely suffer two to three times more from dementia and Alzheimer’s as they age. Again, it’s only a hypothesis, and not something that as of yet can be proven. Only adults with autism who choose to participate in this type of research in the future or donate their bodies to science will be able to help confirm or deny that this hypothesis holds any weight.
Other groups of scientists and researchers, such as the group at the University of Amsterdam, are already under way, even though they do not have a large enough population of volunteers who have autism and fall within the right age category. They are actually hypothesizing that the opposite is true, that the autism symptoms get better in the golden years. They plan to conduct a five year study to see if this is true, and certainly, attempting to prove that there are improvements at the end of the autism rainbow of life will be most interesting to see.
Other research and support groups, like Aging With Autism, or AWA for short, are conducting ongoing research in this area, which should be much more effective in the long run. During the interlude between the young adults who have autism and the elderly adults with autism further on down the road, AWA provides much needed support to individuals and their families. They have programs to help autistic children transition into adulthood and lead as normal and unrestrictive lives as possible, which on the trajectory of life, may indeed impact the end of life for many of these young adults. Along the way, those that are supported are encouraged to give back in the form of data to show how the positive effects of lifelong support can impact an elderly adult with autism. There is no pressure to do so, but in an area where very little is known about a disorder, participants are more than happy to contribute.
Several other autism agencies, whether directly or indirectly, are currently contributing what they can to the study of autism and aging. The concern is more on how to financially support adults with autism rather than on how aging changes their bodies and minds. Money donated to these charitable organizations is handed over to researchers who are working on the problem before it becomes a problem.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association publishes articles on a number of topics. One in particular that readers might find useful is the Perspectives on Gerontology: Aging and Autism, by Pamela A. Smith. Readers do have to buy the article for short term reading duration, as only the excerpt is available for free. For $7, readers can “check out” the article for about a week, and discover what many doctors and researchers are thinking with regards to autism and aging.