• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Answers Article: Does Autism Get Worse With Age?

Some research shows that as children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome grow their autism gets better, not worse with age. It appears to reflect that autistic traits or “symptoms” improve as they grow, and their autism gets better. But—is this really the case?

Social Difficulties May Appear Improved with Age

Autistic children and adults learn to interact with the world around by rote memorization, especially when it comes to dealing with social situations. In social situations children learn, albeit autistic children usually learn more slowly, what is considered “normal” behavior, or socially appropriate. This is learned and not intuitive as it most often is with “normal” or “neuro-typical” children. As the autistic child grows and matures, they learn to emulate, or “pretend to be normal” and blend in with peers more effectively than when they were younger. This can account for one of the appearance of symptoms improving as they age. However, the difficulty is ever present, the individual is just learning to cope, adjust, and pretend better than they could in the past

Adults Report Sensory Issues Get Worse With Age

For many adults on the autism spectrum, the opposite is reported. They report their autistic symptoms as getting worse with age; in particular—the reactivity to sensory input. As adult responsibilities and pressures increase so do their autistic “symptoms.” Many times increased sensitivity to lights, sounds, smells, and social situations are reported. The adult still experiences overloads and meltdowns but many times are better equipped to recognize what triggers these experiences, and thus, they can more effectively remove themselves, or avoid those situations. Children on the other hand often have no control over their environment—going to school, and being told what they need to do and when, and therefore, cannot remove themselves from the situations which can trigger overload and ultimately meltdowns. Further, children with autism usually cannot identify those “triggers.” To the outside world, it may appear that the adult’s autism has improved because they have better learned to handle situations, but from their own reports their autism has not improved. They have just learned to mask it. The overload still happens, the meltdowns still happen, they are just sometimes thwarted.

What About Developmental Delays Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Sometimes children display developmental delays that do improve with time. The two year old who does not speak on the developmental level as his peers can many times “catch up.” He may be delayed, showing a larger developmental gap between him and his peers in grade school, but by the time he reaches adolescence or adulthood he has bridged much of the communication gap. There is often a larger developmental gap when the child with autism is young, than when he grows into an adult.

Largely the question still remains, whether autism gets worse with age. The answer may be two-fold. Some developmental gaps may close and some symptoms get better, but other gaps may widen. One of the diagnostic criteria for autism in relation to social interaction states that difficulty with social situations may not be present until later years, when life’s demand outweighs the child’s social capabilities. Autism is a spectrum, and as such, the symptoms and traits affect each individual differently, and many times each symptom affects the individual different at different times in their lives. Autism does not go away, but may appear worse or better depending on life’s circumstances.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.