Much needed attention is shined on children with autism. Recognizing signs of autism early during a child’s development to begin treatment and education relating to the disease for parents and caregivers has contributed to heightened awareness of the disease and its challenges. Less attention, however is being directed to seniors with autism.
What is autism?
A good place to start is in the beginning. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to Autism Speaks, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDP) estimates that 1 in 59 children in the United States today are affected by autism.
Autism itself, as a medical condition, was first identified in 1911 by Eugen Bleuer, a Swiss psychiatrist. In the United States the term was first used by researchers in the 1940s to describe children with emotional problems.
The first person diagnosed with autism in the U.S. is Donald Gray Triplet. He is 85 years old and lives in Alabama. He was diagnosed with the disorder when he was five years old by Dr. Leo Kanner, who published the seminal paper on autism – how to identify and classify the disease among children. The young Donald exhibited characteristics often attributed to classic autism such as, preference to be alone, engagement in repetitive behaviors, echolalia, and an exceptional memory. Characteristics that continue to this day.
Another prominent individual with autism is Dr. Temple Grandin. At 71, Dr. Grandin has her own website. She is best known for her work in the area of humane treatment of animals. To families with children with autism she provides insights and support to autism communities understanding their loved one’s limitations. She too is a senior.
Another important person in the autism community was Dr. Bernard Rimland. He dedicated his life to autism as a researcher and a parent advocate for his son, Mark. Mark, now in his 60s, lives with his mother and younger brother. He spends his days at an adult school for individuals with disabilities.
These three lives are strong examples of an individual with autism living semi-independently, an individual entering old age with autism, and an individual in old age with autism. Dr. Rimland was at the forefront of parents very worried about who would help their sons and daughters receive appropriate care when they can no longer care for them.
A little under 1 million seniors will face old age with autism
Currently, 36,000 people are living in old age with autism. That number is expected to rise and increase to 926,500 seniors. The needs of this group are the same as those that affect other older individuals – housing and health care. After the parents are unable to care for their adult child with autism, the person may move-in with another family member or live in a group home semi-independently. Health related problems common to people with autism include gastrointestinal and immune system problems, issues with sleep, seizures, sensory sensitivities, and low bone density. Very little is known about cognitive changes with people already suffering from processing issues common to autistic people as they age.