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Aging & Autism: Double Jeopardy?

November 22, 2011 3 comments

This invited guest blog by psychologist Hilde Geurts, PhD, comes  from the Netherlands, which the Autism Speaks science staff recently visited to forge new partnerships with European researchers and family advocates.

If you’re over 55, you’re probably not as fast as you used to be. Perhaps you more easily become emotional. Sometimes you have trouble adapting to changes in your everyday environment. In other words, you’re aging.

Some of these age-related declines are related to brain changes. But what if adapting to a changing environment or controlling your emotions was already difficult when you were young?

Autism is a lifelong condition with a distinct set of strengths and weakness. The weaknesses often involve mental and psychological skills known to deteriorate with aging. Does this mean that these abilities will deteriorate faster with age than they would if you didn’t have autism? Or might your “autistic” brain find ways to compensate?

These are the overarching questions that drive our research project: “Aging & Autism: Double Jeopardy?

We are conducting this five-year study at the University of Amsterdam within the Dutch Autism and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) research center (d’Arc). The goal is to understand what happens when people with autism age. In essence, we’re testing the hypothesis that aging follows a different trajectory in those with autism spectrum disorder than it does in others.

Before starting this project, we spoke to persons with autism who were between the ages of 53 and 83 years. We asked them how they thought aging affected their lives.

Some said that some of the difficulties they had in childhood or young adulthood had become less prominent. They described feeling more comfortable in a variety of social situations—perhaps because the social pressure to act in specific ways had become less intense than when they were young. Others felt that their sensitivity to stimuli such as sounds had increased and that this made them more irritable. In other words, their experiences varied.

On one thing they agreed: That research in this area was sorely needed. Happily, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research agreed with that assessment and provided us with a grant to study autism and aging.

What have we planned for the next five years?

First, we want to determine whether or not some autism-related symptoms tend to ease with age.

Second, we’ll be searching for ways to determine whose cognitive challenges will ease, whose will remain stable and whose will become more severe as they age.

Third, we’ll be investigating how these different outcomes might relate to changes within the brain.

Early results suggest that with some cognitive abilities—such as memory for pictures—the drop in function is steeper for those with autism. But with other skills—such as being creative under time pressure—those with autism show little or no decrease in performance, while those without autism tend to experience steep declines.

It may be that, in some areas, the effects of aging have less of a negative effect on those with autism. I do hope that this is the case. Of course, we’re just now getting started with this research. I look forward to reporting back our findings!

Read more news and perspective on the Autism Speaks Science page.

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