Autism in Adulthood: Not the End of the Story
Recent studies regarding autism in adulthood have found that some adults actually improve the older that they get, rather than deteriorate as some may think. While this doesn’t mean that their symptoms go away entirely, there are some gains that some autistic adults make during their adult years in behavior and symptoms.
While this is not true across the board, it is something that really needs to be explored further, especially considering that government assistance ends for autistic adults at the age of 21. They age out of the system at a time when they could continue to improve with the proper treatment and support. This is a very sad and real thing that families of autistic adults are finding out each and every day.
Most gains are seen in autistic adults without mental retardation and with a high level of language competence. This study by Paul T. Shattuck, PhD, Marsha Mailick Seltzer, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin was conducted over a period of almost five years and followed 241 adults and adolescents ranging from 10 to 52. Standardized tests were used to measure their symptoms of autism and their maladaptive behaviors.
The study found that a majority of those studied actually saw reduced symptoms and behaviors that are commonly found in those who are autistic. Even those with severe autism had significant gains, which clearly shows the need for continued support for adults, just as they had as children and adolescents, but the question comes down to whether families can afford it, since the federal funding ends at the age of 21.
Autism and adulthood doesn’t have to mean that their symptoms worsen. With the proper support, it could mean that they have reduced symptoms and a favorable change in behavior. That is what the study was all about. Simply discontinuing all services at the age of 21 may be smart as far as those in the government believe, but it could actually be smarter to continue services to help those with autism in adulthood.
It is important to note that these study participants did not improve to the point of needing no assistance and care, but they did have gains that were measurable by the standardized tests. Shattuck said, “”Pretty much everyone in our study continues to need significant support. They are profoundly disabled. They are not going out and getting jobs and getting married. They will need significant support for the rest of their lives.”
The most interesting part of this study is that most of the adults who were followed did not receive the type of early, interventional support that children today do. It would be interesting to actually follow one of these children into adulthood and see what improvements that they would make during their adult years. It could be quite eye-opening to the government to see what could actually be achieved with the proper support and accommodations.
Caroline I. Magyar, PhD specializes in treating adolescents and adults with autism. She says, “Based on my experience working with adults with autism, they continue to benefit from many of the same environmental accommodations and supports they had as children. They still require quite a bit of assistance. But many are quite successful when given that support.” This is very encouraging, especially on the heels of the study.
The key to ensuring that autistic adults do not age out of federal funding at the age of 21 is knowledge. By sharing the knowledge that autism in adults doesn’t have to mean that they stay stable or deteriorate. It can, with the proper support, mean that there can be reductions in their behavior and in their symptoms.