Does Autism Get Worse with Age?

By raluca.olariu@…, 28 October, 2021
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An autistic child is more likely to have problems in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. As an autistic person gets older these symptoms tend to become worse. This is because the brain continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. The earlier a child receives treatment for autism, the better their chances of improving as an adult.

How do autism spectrum disorders develop?

Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurologic and developmental disorder that affects the way people think, act and relate to others. It's characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication as well as repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. People with autism spectrum disorders may have problems understanding other people’s emotions and intentions; they often find it difficult to interpret nonverbal cues such as tone of voice and facial expressions.

Some factors impacting autism growth

Genetics: Studies have shown that having one parent with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis increases your risk of getting the condition yourself. If you have two parents with autism, then your chances of being affected are higher still. Having siblings with an autism diagnosis does not seem to affect whether someone gets the disease.

Environment: Experts think that early exposure to toxins such as mercury and pesticides can cause an autism diagnosis later in life.

Diet: It is believed that eating too little protein at critical stages of fetal development can impact cognitive abilities.

Maternal health: Moms who smoke, drink alcohol excessively, take drugs, or eat poorly before pregnancy tend to give birth to children with developmental disorders like autism.

Stressful events: Stressful situations can trigger autistic behaviors in some kids and lead to a diagnosis of autism. This includes things like divorce, death of family members, moving into new homes, starting school, etc.

What are the main symptoms of autism spectrum disorders?

The most common symptom of ASD is difficulty communicating with peers due to a lack of interest in social interactions and poor social skills. Other autism symptoms include:

  • Difficulty making friends
  • Poor eye contact
  • Lack of awareness about body language
  • Problems reading emotional signals from faces
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Stereotyped movements
  • Sensory issues
  • Low muscle tone
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Insistence on sameness
  • Inability to understand humor

Can autistic symptoms worsen with age?

As children with autism get older, their ability to communicate needs to become more complex in order to deal with increasingly complex life situations. They can also become less interested in things like schoolwork and sports activities, which can make them feel frustrated and anxious. These feelings can lead to increased irritability and aggression. In addition, some kids develop obsessive-compulsive tendencies which make them want to do certain tasks over and over again.

A study conducted by the University of London states that autistic traits (repetitive behavior, social struggles) increase with age for both males and females. The researchers found that this was true even when controlling for IQ. However, there were no significant differences between boys and girls in terms of how much these traits worsened with age.

We observed a greater tendency among older participants with ASD to analyze and extract rules, to systemize the world. Is this a worsening of an ASD trait or something that also occurs in typically developed people as they get older?

Or it could be that insight and understanding of autism spectrum disorder improves with age, leading to poorer self-ratings as people become more aware of their traits."

The increasing severity of symptoms with age could reflect a referral bias, where young adults with mild symptoms, or their parents, may be motivated to seek a diagnosis as a way of accessing support, but older adults with mild ASD traits may not.” - Dr. Rebecca Charlton from the University of London.

Another analysis showed a connection between age and the severity of autism. More exactly, as an autistic person gets older, their symptoms may get worse. Researchers believe that this happens because the brain changes during adulthood. For example, the frontal lobe – responsible for planning and decision-making – continues developing until around 25 years old. As a result, adolescents who suffer from autism might experience more severe behavioral challenges than younger ones.

One study of 300 children on the spectrum aged 2-21 has found that 80% of children have consistent symptoms over time.

We were surprised that such a high proportion of the kids’ trajectories were stable. I would have expected more of them to improve, and I would have expected more variability from year to year,” reveals lead investigator Catherine Lord, director of the Institute for Brain Development at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Regressive autism

Some cases of autism show signs of regression after childhood. Regression refers to a sudden change in development. An autistic child will suddenly stop talking, start repeating themselves, lose skills he/she had mastered earlier, etc. There are many theories regarding what causes regressive autism. Some experts say that it has nothing to do with genetics while others claim that environmental factors play a role.

Regression can be real or apparent

Real regressions happen when a person loses all his/her previous abilities. Apparent regressions occur when someone seems to have lost skills without actually having done so.

Adults with autism face complex challenges

As mentioned before, one of the most common problems faced by those diagnosed with autism is social interaction. This problem becomes especially difficult if you live alone. In fact, some studies suggest that loneliness affects up to 50% of people living with autism. It's important to note that being lonely doesn't mean feeling isolated; rather, it means missing out on opportunities to interact with other people.

Another complex challenge that adults with autism often struggle with is employment. They tend to work fewer hours per week compared to other workers. Furthermore, they earn lower wages.

The majority of today's workplaces are not autism-friendly and can be a source of stress for individuals on the spectrum. Also, many employers believe that employees with disabilities should receive less pay due to their condition. However, research shows that autistic people perform better under pressure. Therefore, it makes sense to give these professionals higher salaries.

In addition to working conditions, there are also issues related to housing. Many families find it hard to afford an apartment suitable for their adult son or daughter with autism. The lack of affordable places forces families to move frequently which creates additional difficulties.

Read more: Key Questions About Adults with Autism Answered

How to make workplaces autism-friendly

Supporting neurodiversity in the office benefits everyone. Here are three ways to help your colleagues:

  • Make sure that your workplace provides adequate accommodations for people with sensory sensitivities. For example, provide noise-canceling headphones, allow breaks during meetings, and ensure that offices aren't too bright.
  • Provide training programs for new hires who may need extra time to adapt to the workplace.
  • Be aware of how your own behavior impacts coworkers' experiences. If you're constantly interrupting conversations, don't expect anyone else to keep quiet.
  • It's crucial to create a set of guidelines that clearly define expectations at your company. These rules must include things like dress code, acceptable language, and appropriate behaviors.
  • People with autism typically prefer positive reinforcement over negative criticism. So, instead of telling them "you did something wrong," try praising them for doing well.
  • You might even consider hiring an employee advocate to support your team members. An advocate will act as a liaison between your organization and its workforce. They will help identify needs and concerns among your staff and then take action accordingly.
  • Provide access to reliable information sources about autism. For instance, offer online resources such as blogs, podcasts, videos, and books. You could also host workshops where experts discuss topics relevant to your business.
  • Autistic people have different interests than non-autistics. Some examples include art, music, nature, sports, technology, animals, food, etc. To cater to these preferences, businesses can organize events around specific themes. For example, a restaurant could hold cooking classes once every month.

Growing old with autism

As we get older, our brains become slower and harder to control. This is called cognitive aging. It affects all of us but those with autism tend to experience greater declines in memory and other mental functions.

This doesn’t mean that they won’t live long lives. In fact, studies show that an autistic person does just fine when compared to peers without the disorder. But if you ask most parents what they fear most about growing up with autism, one answer would likely come first: “growing old."

Here are some tips to cope with the challenges associated with getting older while living with autism:

  • Take advantage of social situations. As much as possible, seek out activities that involve interacting with others. Socializing helps reduce stress levels and improves moods.
  • Keep learning. The brain continues developing throughout adulthood. Therefore, it's important to stay engaged by taking part in educational or vocational pursuits.
  • Stay active. Exercise has been shown to improve attention span and concentration. Plus, physical activity boosts energy levels and reduces anxiety.
  • Get involved. Volunteering offers many benefits including increased self-esteem, improved relationships, etc.
  • Don't be afraid to reach out. If you're struggling with any aspect of life, don't hesitate to talk to someone who understands. Your family, friends, teachers, counselors, doctors, clergy, and more may be able to provide guidance.

How you can support seniors on the spectrum

The following suggestions were compiled from various websites and publications. These ideas should not replace professional advice. However, they may prove helpful during times of transition.

  • Create a safe environment. Make sure there aren't too many distractions like TVs, radios, phones, computers, pets, etc. Also make sure everyone knows how to contact emergency services.
  • Be patient. Seniors often need time to adjust to changes. Give them space to process things before asking questions.
  • Be ready for an eventual loss of sight, hearing, balance, etc. You can search for a professional medical staff that can help guide your loved ones through this difficult period.
  • Make plans ahead of time. Discussing future goals will give your loved ones something concrete to work toward. They'll also feel less overwhelmed knowing where their priorities lie.

Seniors with autism experience life quite differently than people without the condition. While these strategies might seem obvious, they're worth mentioning because they could save your loved one years of frustration and heartache down the road.

As the link between the severity of autistic traits and older age has been demonstrated, it is important to consider whether interventions aimed at improving cognitive abilities may benefit individuals with ASD across the lifespan.

For example, recent research suggests that working memory training programs may enhance executive functioning skills such as planning and organization in both children and adolescents with high-functioning autism. It remains unclear whether similar results can be obtained among those with low-functioning autism.

Leveraging treatment plans like ABBA therapies or AIM therapy, which are designed specifically for adults with autism, may offer key benefits that support individuals with autism in their aging process. Also, given evidence suggesting that social communication difficulties tend to increase over time, thus providing opportunities for socialization throughout adulthood may improve quality of life later in life.

In addition, some studies have suggested that early intervention may reduce the risk of developing dementia in late life.

There's no debate that early interventions and treatment can lead to better outcomes for individuals with autism in their adult life.


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