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Autism and the Elderly

Many autistic seniors don’t know they live with autism, but that doesn’t stop it from affecting their lives. That’s because as a diagnosis, autism spectrum disorder is only a few decades old, which means very little is known about aging with autism. And while countless seniors have unknowingly lived and adapted to their autism, those seniors may find their special needs unfulfilled as they age.

What’s Autism?

Autism is an umbrella term for a set of cognitive differences in communication, interests, behavior, and social interaction. Autistic people manifest these differences in a variety of ways as they interact with other people and experience the world. For instance, many autistic people may struggle to recognize irony, sarcasm, or are unable to read the non-verbal communication cues that come naturally and effortlessly to most people.

Nevertheless, many autistic adults are high functioning and intelligent. Even though they may have never known themselves to be autistic, they have undoubtedly constructed coping mechanisms to help adapt. But as we age and our faculties are strained, those hard-won coping mechanisms may be put in jeopardy.

Senior Autism: Coexisting Conditions Complicate Matters

Throughout their lives, autistic people are at increased risk for depression and anxiety, a problem that usually only becomes worse with age.  In fact, a recent study of 2,100 autistic seniors found nearly half suffered from anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, this isn’t restricted to only mental health problems. Epilepsy, hearing impairments, vision problems, cardiovascular problems, sleep disorders, and metabolic issues are also far more common among autistic seniors. Even the rate of suicide among autistic adults is nearly five times as high as it is in those without autism.

People with autism have built coping skills over the course of a lifetime. But time marches on and erodes our faculties, the comfortable routines and solitude that an autistic person typically craves may be lost. Caregivers who are inexperienced at dealing with autistic seniors may only make matters worse, leaving them with unmet and unrecognized needs.

Providing for Autistic Seniors

Autistic seniors need regularity. A regular routine with familiar caregivers is ideal. Breaks in routine or over-stimulating surroundings, like the presence of excessive noise, can be both agitating and distressing to an autistic person. Autistic people are often hyper-sensitive to stimulation, and overstimulation can lead to outbursts and confusion.

Even though they struggle with social interaction, autistic people have very similar social needs to the average person. That’s why it’s critical for caregivers to understand how an autistic individual socializes and relates to others, and then to help accommodate those highly individual needs. Boisterous settings with large groups of people are generally undesirable, with autistic people tending to prefer more intimate settings where they can simultaneously explore their interests.

Seniors have a hard enough time getting out and socializing without autism. While there’s still a great deal we don’t know about aging with it, one thing we do know is that with our help, compassion, and understanding, even autism can’t prevent someone from making the most out of their golden years.

Do you know of an older adult with autism? What was your experience? What has helped them and what advice would you give to others caring for an autistic senior? Let us know in the comments below.

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