Older adults with mild autistic traits are much more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and difficulty ‘getting things done’ than adults without such traits, research by Goldsmiths, University of London indicates.
With autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the elderly an under-explored area, and older individuals with ASD difficult to recruit to studies, the psychologists believe that studying people who have mild autistic traits could inform our knowledge on aging and autism.
Previous research shows that 20-50% of family members of an individual with ASD display behaviours characteristic of ASD; these traits also exist in the general population and are known as the broad autism phenotype (BAP).
About the study
Adults aged 61-88 years were asked to report traits common in ASD such as social problems, ‘aloofness’, appropriate use of language in social situations, as well as ‘executive functions’ – including the ability to plan and organise behaviour.
The 66 participants were then categorised into two groups: 20 adults with the BAP and 46 adults without the BAP.
Individuals in the BAP group, even after controlling for age, education, sex and health problems, exhibited more real world ‘executive function’ problems, and reported lower levels of social support, and higher rates of depression and anxiety than the control group.
Older adults in the BAP group were likely to have a smaller social network, fewer close friends, and less frequent social interactions than those in the control group.
The study was led by Dr Rebecca Charlton with MSc student Jessica Budgett (Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths) and Dr Gregory Wallace (Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, The George Washington University), and is the first investigation into the BAP in the context of older adulthood, and its association with mental health difficulties.
Why is this important?
“Only recently has there been a focus on adulthood and aging in ASD so the knowledge on it is woefully small,” explains Dr Charlton.
“The first individuals diagnosed with ASD in the 1940s are now reaching old age so we hope there will be more opportunities for study.
“But there have long been difficulties in recruiting older individuals with ASD to take part in research. Studies such as ours – which utilises individuals with BAP traits instead – may be less impeded by difficulties, but can still inform knowledge on aging and ASD.
"A combination of a rapidly growing elderly population, and increases in adulthood ASD diagnoses poses a growing social and financial challenge. Greater knowledge is important for identifying risk factors that might affect the management and planning of services for this elderly population.
A survey by the National Autistic Society conducted in 2008 found that only 8% of individuals with ASD had most of their support from professionals, with 46% having most support provided by their families.
“With an aging ASD population, as individuals start to lose family members, we could begin to see more devastating isolation, loneliness and depression, an increased risk for dementia and the onset of both physical and social impairments.”
Participants were recruited via the University of the Third Age in Ealing, two West London GP surgeries, and by posting information on online forums for older adults and relatives of those with an ASD diagnosis, such as talkaboutautism.org.uk.
Aging and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence from the Broad Autism Phenotype will be published in the journal Autism Research on Friday 11 March.