Buffalo, NY – Researchers from the Institute for Autism Research (IAR) and departments of Psychology and Kinesiology recently published evidence that autism characteristics are associated with challenges in physical health, mental health and psychological well-being during later life. This work was published on November 3, 2021 in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
These findings are part of the Aging and Autism Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging and led by Jennifer Lodi-Smith, PhD, Jonathan D. Rodgers, PhD and Karl F. Kozlowski, PhD. This work could only be completed thanks to the generosity of the 294 participants aged 53-96 (57% female, 97% White, 97% without an autism diagnosis) who contributed their time and responses in the spring and summer of 2019.
Using survey methods, study researchers show that individuals who reported higher autism characteristics also reported greater health challenges. More specifically, they reported difficulty with social engagement due to poor physical health, poor mental health including depression and anxiety, and limited satisfaction with life and psychological well-being.
“Research on autism spectrum disorder in older adulthood lags behind that of research in other age groups,” said Kozlowski. “This research adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that autism is associated with challenges in aging in the areas of physical health, mental health and psychological well-being.”
Prior research is primarily based on formal autism diagnoses rather than measuring autism characteristics across individuals. These findings help shed greater light on the challenges associated with autism by studying individuals aging with elevated autism characteristics who do not have a formal autism diagnosis.
“This work points to new avenues for understanding aging in the context of autism by using survey-based measures as a means to fill the gap while much needed diagnostic tools are developed and calibrated for use with older adults,” says Rodgers.
Addressing autism characteristics rather than clinical diagnoses also let researchers determine that characteristic social challenges have a greater association with health challenges than other autism-related characteristics. This echoes research that suggests that social factors such as social connection are critical for healthy aging.
Lodi-Smith notes that more work is urgently needed on this topic.
“While these findings underscore the importance of understanding autism and aging, they also point towards critical avenues for future, such as studying the strengths and strategies of individuals who have lived a full life with autism characteristics, studying autism characteristics over time, developing diagnostic tools for use in older adult populations, and identifying ways in which our society can support healthy aging for those on the autism spectrum.”
This study includes valuable support from the following student-researchers at Canisius: Sarah Khan, BS; Valeria Marquez Luna, BS; Caleb J. Long, BA, and senior IAR members James P. Donnelly, PhD, Christopher Lopata, PsyD and Marcus L. Thomeer, PhD.
The Institute for Autism Research is an interdisciplinary collaborative research center dedicated to understanding autism spectrum disorder and enhancing the lives of those affected and their families. Researchers from diverse backgrounds work together to address critical questions involving development, assessment, clinical treatment, and education. This research work has led to development of several new and effective treatments.
Researchers at the IAR are also dedicated to training the next generation of researchers and practitioners through advanced academic, research, and clinical and community-based experiences. For more information about the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius University, visit www.Canisius.edu/iar.
Canisius University is one of 28 Jesuit universities in the nation and the premier private university in Western New York.