There is little to be known about autism in elderly people. This is primarily because autism is a relatively new neurodevelopmental disorder, where its existence was only made clear during the 1940’s and was officially recognized as a separate clinical term in the 1970’s. Many researchers are still on the younger stage of their study about the interaction between autism and old age since it is only at this present time that those who have been diagnosed 7 or 8 decades ago have reached their golden years. This is why many people would easily get the perception that autism is a condition that only affects children and that people will grow out of it. What they don’t know is that autism can last a person’s lifetime, and most autistic people are afraid of what the future holds for them.

Proponents about autism in old age have surfaced and some of these point out to a common theory, that is, autism-related issues seem to decline when people reach the final stage of life. This proposition is made following the accounts of elderly autistic people themselves and their families. But this testament-supported view is not met without any scepticism and contradiction, no matter how truthful the claims are. Recent research has shown different results, which ultimately lead to more puzzling questions regarding this topic.

About the Research

The Autism Diagnostic Research Center in Southampton, United Kingdom, has spearheaded a recent study that involved some 146 adult participants who have undergone diagnostic procedures at the same institution between the years 2008 to 2015. The age of the consenting participants ranges from 18 to 74 years old. Among the group, about a hundred of them were all diagnosed with autism after childhood, and the remaining 46 people did not receive any diagnosis. This test population was used in the study that aims to establish a link between the increase or decrease of autism features and old age. Certain differences observed in the conditions of both diagnosed and not diagnosed individuals were recorded and interpreted to come up with the findings.

The major findings of the study present the conclusion that autism features somehow worsen as the person ages, especially on the aspects of responsiveness to changes, decision-making, and brainstorming, as well as social skills and communication. This is somehow contradictory to the common theories about autism and old age.

It is also found out that in the group of diagnosed individuals, those who are older exhibit the need to recognize rules to be able to respond appropriately in every situation and show a great preference for structures and orderliness. Hence their eagerness to follow routines and drive to understand hierarchies is greater compared with the younger ones. In contrast, such observation is not found in the group of 46 non-diagnosed individuals, although this difference is not relevant enough to establish a pattern.

Other Important Findings

There are many other observations that would somehow help shed light on many grey areas of our recent understanding of autism in older years. In the study on the diagnosed group, those who have sought diagnosis at a much later period in their life have exhibited more severe autism features compared to those who were diagnosed at an earlier age. This is opposite to what other people might think about diagnosis, where they believe that those who have more severe issues would often seek early diagnosis and intervention. What can be inferred from this finding is the assumption that those who were late diagnosed have developed certain coping skills and mechanisms throughout the course of their life to help them manage their condition, which explains why they only decided to get diagnosed when they’re already old. These skills and mechanisms may have become less useful as they get older, and regression in many aspects could have lead to such more severe autism features.

To test this hypothesis out, both the diagnosed and non-diagnosed groups were told to participate in shape and visual recognition tests, as well as tasks that measure thinking speed. The diagnosed group showed better performance compared to the non-diagnosed group in both types of test. In a more specific scope, the diagnosed group was further divided into two subgroups based on their age. It was found out that the older ones performed better than the younger ones in cognitive tests.

For anxiety and depression assessment, both adult groups showed high rates during the test, especially those in the diagnosed group, where more than 30% of the participants displayed great anxiety and depression levels that are alarmingly high when compared to the general population. Both anxiety and depression are common mental illnesses that are believed to decrease memory and cognitive processes in older people. With both disorders present in the test population, it can be deduced that anxiety and depression both contribute to the worsening of autism features in older adults.

Knowing that all the participants have cognitive abilities that are within the normal range and that their diagnoses were given past the childhood developmental milestone, the findings also suggest that the awareness of the participants about their own condition during the study has contributed to the realization and discovery of more autism features. When the participants are told to be more honest about their condition and report any feature of autism, they may have become more conscious of their difficulties.


Although the research is just one of the few known autism studies that focus on older adults, the findings provide some solid groundwork for future studies on the same topic. Experts can focus on these underlying factors that are believed to cause the worsening of autism features as people grow older and develop more modern and complex methodologies in their endeavours.

Of this present time and day, ageing is still considered as an inevitable process that all human beings will undergo at a certain point of their life. Even autistic persons will have to age, but it is up to their family, support system and the medical field to make the process less difficult and more worthwhile.