Over the past few decades, autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have drawn much attention in medical and social science literature. However, there is still very little known about the experience of older adults diagnosed with ASD and related conditions. A review in Gerontology summarizes available literature on aging and ASD, and points to how future research in this area may indicate the relationship of aging to cognition, social interaction, and neurobiology.
ASD is understood by medical researchers as a spectrum of related conditions that are marked by abnormal communicative skills and behaviors. ASD is used to describe a wide range of conditions—from linguistic and social impairment severe enough to prevent individuals from living independently to Asperger Syndrome (AS) in which linguistic and cognitive skills are atypical but can be richly developed. Although ASD is not a new phenomenon, the term “autism” was not used clinically until the mid-twentieth century. Individuals diagnosed with ASD as children are only now reaching older adulthood.
The authors of the review found few publications exist on aging and ASD: three case studies of older adults with ASD, four discussion papers, and two empirical studies consisting of a survey and a secondary data analysis. It is difficult to infer much from only this research, but it does appear that there are difficulties in diagnosing ASD among older adults and a need for further research on service requirements of autistic older adults. Additionally, more studies regarding the long-term effects of antipsychotic medication, which is frequently prescribed to adults with ASD, are necessary.
The review identifies areas of research and theory that will be advanced by further study of ASD and aging. For instance, the social cognition of aging is poorly understood, and is an area of study that would benefit greatly from the study of older adults with ASD. Studies of memory and of executive functioning (the ability to direct cognition according to goals) will also benefit from such research, as ASD and normal cognitive aging appear similar in their associations with these cognitive domains. This review points out the need for longitudinal research on aging and ASD, and highlights some important contributions that will make a significant difference in future findings.
Happé, F., and Charlton, R.A. (2011). “Aging in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Mini-Review.” Gerontology, epub ahead of print.