I know a number of children, adolescents and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and I’ve had the pleasure of assisting aging adults and seniors on the spectrum. What most people don’t realize is there are real challenges seniors with autism face as they grow older with this developmental disorder.
“For many autistic adults, the golden years are tarnished by poor health, poverty and, in some cases, homelessness. Their plight reveals huge gaps in care,” says Rachel Nuwer in her article, Growing Old with Autism, published by Spectrum News.
Since children have been the primary focus of the majority of ASD research, it can be difficult to find information about autism and aging. Thankfully, more studies have been conducted over the past five years, and more information has emerged that indicates autistic seniors often suffer from serious physical and mental health conditions and co-occurring conditions, such as chronic allergies, depression, diabetes, heart disease and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“They are also about 2.5 times as likely as their neurotypical peers to die early. The reasons for these grim statistics may range from missed medical appointments and medication doses, to a lifetime of social slights and discrimination. Many autistic seniors also bear the consequences of having been undiagnosed for most of their lives,” Nuwer continued.
One study designed to explore the health of autistic seniors was highlighted in her article. This research studied 55,100 seniors: 4700 seniors with autism and 46,800 seniors without autism. It found that aging adults with ASD were more likely than adults without ASD to suffer from 19 of 22 health conditions observed in the study, as well as 9 out of 10 mental health conditions.
Nuwer explained, “For instance, adults with autism are 19 times as likely as controls to have epilepsy and 6 times as likely to have Parkinson’s disease. They are 25 times as likely to have schizophrenia or other forms of psychosis, 11 times as likely to have suicidal thoughts or engage in intentional self-injury and 22 times as likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”
ASD also shares genetic characteristics with disorders like schizophrenia, ADHD, and certain cancers; and evidence shows a biological link to Parkinson’s disease, all of which complicate the lives of aging adults with ASD.
Medication can also make matters worse for seniors with autism. Antipsychotic drugs, which are often prescribed for aging autistic adults, have side effects like weight gain, high blood pressure and sleep apnea, and they can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Seniors that cope with ASD often refrain from social engagement, because the world can be harsh and “unfriendly,” especially when typical adults do not understand or recognize autism in developmentally-challenged adults. This can prompt “camouflaging” or “masking,” which is a behavior where an adult with autism hides their autistic traits to appear like a typical peer. This can prove very stressful for autistic people, and stress has been proven to raise one’s risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as increase the possibility of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
“Looking at health in older adults with autism can tell us something about the result of a lifetime of the lived experience of being autistic, of the discrimination that comes with being autistic,” says Lauren Bishop, assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Social isolation is another problematic behavior among aging adults with autism, and my experience tells me that the lack of socialization contributes to higher instances of depression and loneliness, along with feelings of rejection.
There are many shades of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and they span all ages from young to old. For more information, questions or concerns, families and caregivers are invited to call the National Autism Society at 800-328-8476; or learn more about available resources and programs for seniors with autism at Autism Society of Florida.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and Home Helpers® is committed to assisting 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 an autistic adult you know, could benefit from some assistance from a compassionate Home Helpers® caregiver, we provide in-home care services like meal planning and preparation, wellness calls with medication reminders, companion care, light housekeeping, personal care, 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 the fifth consecutive year: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 & 2021. 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