Social group vital to quality of life for older autistic people

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Social support is an important contributor to quality of life among middle-aged and older autistic adults, a demographic often overlooked in the application of social interventions, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

An online study by Dr Rebecca Charlton (Goldsmith University of London) and Dr Gregory Wallace (The George Washington University) asked nearly 400 autistic adults without co-occurring intellectual disability in the United States, aged between 40 and 83, about depression and anxiety symptoms; quality of life (physical, psychological, social, environmental, and autism-specific) and the different types of social support they experience.

Questions on social support explored both quantity and quality of social interactions, and allowed participants to report both formal and informal support mechanisms such as the presence of family and friends, personal relationships, more casual social interactions (e.g., outside the workplace), or organised practical support. 

As subjective quality of life is based on an individual’s perception, self-reporting by participants was considered the most appropriate and reliable data collection method by the research team.

Participants also provided information on their age, race, ethnicity, sex assigned at birth, and presence of physical health conditions, as many of these factors are known to have a significant impact on quality of life. 

On average, women who completed the survey reported their quality of life to be much lower than men, a pattern often seen in research involving neurotypical adults too, which previous studies indicates may be related to income.

There was little difference in quality of life levels reported for people within three age categories (40-49, 50-59, 60+), which differs from most research with non-autistic adults. Prior research has suggested that non-autistic older adults may have better quality of life compared to middle-aged adults, although in later old age quality of life has been shown to be reduced, possibly related to declines in health.

Social support was significantly associated with each aspect of quality of life, even after accounting for demographic, physical health and mental health factors.

In keeping with studies in both younger autistic adults and non-autistic adults across adulthood, mental health factors such as presence of anxiety and depression symptoms were also associated with quality of life. While not explored as part of the current study, prior research has found higher levels of anxiety and depression among autistic people than in the general population.

Research was conducted in the United States while lead author Dr Rebecca Charlton was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at The George Washington University, Washington, DC, in 2021.

Dr Charlton, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “To our knowledge this is the first study to examine the impact of social support on quality of life among middle-aged and older autistic people, with prior studies typically focusing more on younger adults and children. Our pool of participants included a large number of autistic people assigned female at birth, which is a specifically understudied demographic. 

“Just as greater interpersonal social support and practical support can have positive impacts on quality of life for autistic young adults, our results show that different aspects of social support are really important for middle and older aged autistic people. It’s clear that interventions bolstering different forms and types of support could really benefit older autistic people.”

Social Support and Links to Quality of Life Among Middle-Aged and Older Autistic Adults by Rebecca Charlton (Goldsmiths), Goldie A. McQuaid (George Mason University), and Gregory L. Wallace (The George Washington University) was published in the journal Autism.