Community Blog

Awareness Needed to Recognize Autism in Seniors

By Debbie Humphrey

Even though I work with aging adults on a daily basis, when I hear the word “Autism,” I tend to think of children and young people more often than the elderly. However, autism in seniors is a reality that exists and requires awareness.

Autism Spectrum Disorder has been a diagnosis for several decades, even though doctors and researchers have been exploring it since 1943. At that time, a 5 year-old named Donald was demonstrating similar behaviors we recognize in autistic children today. As of 2016 - 80 years later – Donald was still living and loving life in Mississippi, driving a car, golfing with friends and hanging out with fellow citizens in his community!

Donald has managed the disorder to his golden years by developing superior coping skills and mechanisms to deal with his disconnects, even though a clear diagnosis of autism was not initially established. Donald was said to have Kanner’s Syndrome, as he presented with behaviors of what we know as autism today.

Autism is a general term for observed cognitive differences that affect communication skills, interests, behaviors and the way those with the disorder socially interact. Each individual is different in how these manifest in their lives, but one thing is clear: what comes naturally to me, may be more challenging or impossible for an adult with autism.

This is not to say that they can’t function like the rest of us. In fact, many function at a very high level and are quite intelligent. The problem is that as they age, seniors with autism may lose their abilities to cope as they once did, as their bodies decline. This can pose serious challenges to their activities of daily living.

It’s virtually impossible to know how many seniors suffer from autism, however, Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D., Autism Research Institute, and Margaret L. Bauman, M.D., Boston University School of Medicine, wrote an editorial that was published in the Spring 2016 edition of the Autism Research Institute Autism Research Review International newsletter that included some fascinating statistics.

“The 2013 U.S. census reports 63 million people who are age 60 and older. This would amount to 31,500 seniors with autism in the U.S. Using a less conservative statistical approach, if one assumes that the prevalence rate of autism has always been 1 in 68, this would total to 926,500. In either case, the main point is that there are tens of thousands or possibly even hundreds of thousands of people on the autism spectrum in their senior years. If one were to harbor an educated guess, there are approximately a half-million seniors on the autism spectrum in the U.S.”

Furthermore, an article published in 2014 by HealthyDay® News for Healthier Living, revealed more statistics about adult autism and its effects on mental and physical health, based on a study conducted by Lisa Croen, director of the Kaiser Permanente Autism Research Program in Oakland, CA:

“Adults diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder had markedly higher rates of mental health problems than the other adults:

  • Depression (38 percent versus 17 percent)
  • Anxiety (39 percent versus 18 percent)
  • Bipolar disorder (30 percent versus 9 percent)
  • Suicide attempts (1.6 percent versus 0.3 percent)

People with autism spectrum disorders were also more likely than adults without the disorder to have physical ailments, such as:

  • Diabetes (6 percent versus 4 percent)
  • Gastrointestinal disorders (47 percent versus 38 percent)
  • Epilepsy (12 percent versus 1 percent)
  • Sleep disorders (19 percent versus 10 percent)
  • High cholesterol (26 percent versus 18 percent)
  • High blood pressure (27 percent versus 19 percent)
  • Obesity (27 percent versus 16 percent)"

Contemplating all of these statistics is alarming, considering these numbers have probably expanded over the last three to five years, and the subject of autism in seniors is so rarely discussed. Perhaps, the 2020 census will provide more current stats, even as the CDC continues to place their focus primarily on autism in children. This simply emphasizes the need for more awareness by all of us to understand that autism spectrum is a diagnosis for people of all ages, not only children.

As previously stated, Autism Spectrum Disorder affects each individual differently, and not all seniors with autism fare as well as Donald. If they have battled health issues related to autism, those conditions are likely to become more severe with age.

Moreover, many autistic seniors have lived with their parents all of their lives, but when their parents pass away, or become too weak to care for them, their senior child with autism may require care and assistance to remain in their home. Still, some may need to move in with another relative, a group home or assisted living facility.

Since April is Autism Awareness Month, and Home Helpers® is committed to those with intellectual and developmental differences, I am happy to offer a FREE Consultation to assess specific needs and develop a care plan to help autistic seniors maintain their independence in their home for as long as possible. If you, or a special senior someone you know is autistic, Home Helpers® is here to help with in-home care services like companionship, homemaking, personal hygiene, transportation assistance and so much more.

We, at Home Helpers® Clearwater, are honored to have received the Home Care Pulse – Best of Home Care® Provider of Choice Award for 2017, 2018 & 2019. We proudly serve male and female seniors in Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Holiday, New Port Richey, Trinity, Port Richey, Hudson and surrounding areas. Home Helpers®…we are Making Life Easier℠  727.942.2539

Source:  Autism Research Institute

              HealthyDay® News for Healthier Living