Understanding Autism in Older Adults: Challenges and Support

Autism can present differently in older adults than it does in children.

Published On:
October 25, 2023

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects people of all ages, races, and genders. It is often diagnosed in childhood, but what happens when someone with autism grows up? What does autism look like in older adults, and how can we support them?

In this article, we will explore what autism is, how it can present in older adults, and the challenges that individuals with autism may face as they age. We will also discuss strategies for supporting older adults with autism and provide resources for those who want to learn more.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that the symptoms and severity of autism can vary widely from person to person.

Autism is often diagnosed in childhood, but some people may not receive a diagnosis until later in life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism. However, the prevalence of autism in older adults is not as well understood.

How Autism Can Present in Older Adults

Autism can present differently in older adults than it does in children. Some individuals may have received a diagnosis in childhood but were not properly supported or have not received any treatment for many years. Others may have developed coping mechanisms that mask their symptoms, making it difficult for them to receive a diagnosis.

Some common signs of autism in older adults may include:

  • Difficulty with social interactions and relationships
  • Sensory sensitivities or aversions
  • Difficulty with communication, including nonverbal communication
  • Repetitive behaviors or routines
  • Difficulty with changes in routine or unexpected events
  • Difficulty understanding social cues or sarcasm
  • Narrow interests or difficulty with flexibility in activities or interests

How is Autism Diagnosed in Older People

Diagnosing autism in older adults can be challenging due to a lack of understanding and awareness of the disorder in previous decades. Additionally, symptoms of autism may overlap with symptoms of other conditions that are more commonly associated with aging, such as dementia or depression.

To diagnose autism in older adults, healthcare providers may use a combination of methods, including clinical interviews, behavioral assessments, and medical tests to rule out other underlying conditions. It is also important for healthcare providers to consider the individual's developmental history and any previous diagnoses or evaluations.

Furthermore, it is essential for healthcare providers to approach the diagnostic process with cultural sensitivity and an understanding of how gender and racial biases can impact diagnosis. This is especially important for older adults who may have experienced discrimination or stigma throughout their lives.

Overall, diagnosing autism in older adults requires a comprehensive evaluation that takes into account the individual's unique experiences and needs. By increasing awareness and understanding of autism in older adults, we can better support this population and ensure they receive appropriate care.

Challenges for Older Adults with Autism

Older adults with autism may face a range of unique challenges as they age. These include:

  • Difficulty accessing appropriate healthcare: Older adults with autism may struggle to get the medical care they need, particularly if they have difficulty communicating their needs or if healthcare providers are not trained in working with patients with autism.
  • Difficulty finding employment: Finding and maintaining employment can be a challenge for many individuals with autism, and this can be particularly true for older adults who may face additional barriers due to age discrimination.
  • Difficulty socializing with peers: Social isolation is a common issue for many older adults, but it can be especially difficult for individuals with autism who may struggle to connect with others or read social cues.
  • Difficulty with daily living skills: Basic daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and managing finances can be challenging for older adults with autism, particularly if they have limited support from family members or caregivers.

In addition to these challenges, older adults with autism may also experience age-related changes that exacerbate their symptoms. For example:

  • Changes in vision or hearing: As individuals age, changes in vision or hearing can make communication more difficult for anyone. However, for individuals with autism who may rely heavily on visual or auditory cues, these changes can be especially disruptive.
  • Changes in routine or living situations: Changes to routine or living situations can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism who may rely on structure and predictability to manage their symptoms. These changes could include moving to a new home or care facility, changes in daily routines due to retirement or other life events, or changes in relationships due to the loss of a spouse or partner.

Strategies for Improving Social Skills and Reducing Isolation

Social isolation is a common issue for many older adults with autism, but there are strategies that can help improve social skills and reduce feelings of loneliness. Here are some suggestions:

1. Join Support Groups

Joining a support group can provide individuals with autism the opportunity to connect with others who share similar experiences and challenges. Support groups can be found online or in-person, and they offer a safe space for individuals to discuss their feelings, ask questions, and receive advice.

2. Participate in Community Activities

Participating in community activities such as volunteering or joining clubs can provide opportunities for social interaction while pursuing shared interests. This can help individuals with autism build relationships and feel more connected to their community.

3. Use Technology to Connect

Technology can be an excellent tool for reducing social isolation by providing opportunities for virtual communication. Video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype can enable individuals with autism to connect with others from the comfort of their own home.

4. Practice Social Skills

Practicing social skills through role-playing or working with a therapist can help individuals with autism feel more confident in social situations. These sessions could focus on specific skills such as making eye contact, initiating conversations, or interpreting nonverbal cues.

5. Seek Out Professional Support

Working with a therapist or counselor who specializes in treating individuals with autism can provide valuable support and guidance for improving social skills and reducing isolation. A professional can work one-on-one with the individual to identify specific areas of difficulty and develop personalized strategies for improvement.

By implementing these strategies, older adults with autism can improve their social skills, build meaningful relationships, and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness that may impact their quality of life.

How Gender Affects the Signs of Autism

Recent research suggests that gender can play a role in how autism presents in individuals. Historically, autism has been diagnosed more frequently in boys than girls, leading to a lack of understanding about how the disorder may present differently in females.

Studies suggest that females with autism may display symptoms differently than males and that their symptoms may be overlooked or misdiagnosed. For example, females with autism may be better at masking their symptoms or adapting to social situations, making it harder for clinicians to recognize their struggles.

Additionally, some studies have suggested that females with autism may be more likely to have co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression. These conditions can further complicate diagnosis and treatment.

It is important for healthcare providers and caregivers to understand the ways in which gender can impact the signs of autism so that they can provide appropriate support and care. By recognizing the unique experiences of individuals with autism based on their gender, we can improve outcomes and ensure that everyone receives the help they need.

Supporting Older Adults with Autism

There are many strategies for supporting older adults with autism. Some of these strategies may include:

  • Providing appropriate healthcare and support services
  • Encouraging socialization and community involvement
  • Offering assistive technology or sensory accommodations
  • Providing employment or training opportunities
  • Offering support with daily living skills

It is also important to remember that every person with autism is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. It is important to individualize support strategies and work closely with the individual to identify their needs and preferences.

Resources for Understanding Autism in Older Adults

There are many resources available for those who want to learn more about autism in older adults. Some of these resources include:

  • Autism Speaks: Autism in Adults
  • National Institute on Aging: Autism Spectrum Disorder in Older Adults
  • The Autistic Self Advocacy Network: Aging and Autism
  • Autism Society of America: Adults with Autism

Treatment for Adult Autism

Treatment for adult autism can be challenging, as there is no cure for the disorder. However, there are a variety of treatments that can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life for individuals with autism.

There are several treatment approaches that can be used to manage the symptoms of autism. These include:

  • Behavioral therapy: This approach focuses on teaching individuals with autism new skills and behaviors to replace maladaptive ones. Behavioral therapy may include techniques such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or other types of therapy that help individuals learn new ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Medication: Medication can be used to manage some of the symptoms associated with autism, such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, or impulsivity. For example:
  • Antidepressants: These medications can help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety in individuals with autism.
  • Antipsychotics: These medications may be used to help reduce aggression, agitation, or self-injury in some individuals with autism.
  • Stimulants: These medications may be prescribed to help manage hyperactivity or impulsivity in individuals with autism.
  • Anti-anxiety medications: These medications may be used to help manage symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks in individuals with autism.

It's important to note that medication should always be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

It is important for healthcare providers to work closely with individuals with autism and their families to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses their unique needs and challenges. By providing appropriate support and care, we can help individuals with autism lead fulfilling lives and reach their full potential.


In conclusion, understanding autism in older adults is an important step towards providing appropriate support and services. By recognizing the unique challenges faced by older adults with autism and offering individualized support strategies, we can help these individuals live happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives.


  • Aging with Autism: A Guide to Good Health, Retirement, and Independent Living by Stephen M. Shore
  • The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger's Syndrome: Find the Right Career and Get Hired by Barbara Bissonnette
  • Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron
  • International Society for Autism Research (INSAR)
  • Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN)

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