Does Asperger’s get worse with age?
A question I hear a lot is, Does Asperger’s get worse with age? This question can almost seem offensive to autism parents. What some autism parents think of when we hear a question like this is, what do you mean “worse”? Are you implying that there’s something “wrong” with my child? Are you saying that he/she is bad in some way?
Don’t worry though. As an autism parent I’ve learned to develop a thick skin, and am not easily offended. I’ve also learned to read between the lines to see what a person truly means when they are asking a question to improve their understanding. I can help you!
I think I understand what you are trying to get at. When you ask, does Asperger’s get worse with age, what you really mean is, do the behaviors associated with an autism diagnosis increase or decrease in severity with age. There. Now we’re asking the right question!
Here’s the short answer to your question. Not really, though it may appear that it does. As any child moves into adulthood, they are better at controlling their behaviors and emotions. This is true of both autistic people and neurotypical alike. As a person progresses through adulthood though, they become more “set in their ways” as it were. As they enter their senior years, many people tend to become a bit more egocentric and are less concerned about what others may think about them. They become less guarded of how they appear to others. Again, this is often true of all people whether or not they have autism.
In a neurotypical person, this may mean becoming that cranky old woman or that cantankerous old man. For someone on the autism spectrum, it may mean that they exert less control over themselves, and some of the behaviors associated with autism might begin to show through a bit more.
You switch between calling it Asperger’s and autism, are they the same?
There are plenty of resources on the internet that go into great detail about this, so I will keep it short. In a nutshell, you can loosely say they are the same. Asperger’s used to be a specific diagnosis referring to what was considered “high functioning autism”. In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association made the determination that they would no longer separate the two, and instead merged them into Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD for short.
Many people feel that autism is becoming more prevalent in the world today, but this is not entirely true. What is actually happening is that what used to be numerous different diagnosis are now being classified as one. In addition to that, Dr.’s are becoming better at recognizing autism and diagnosing it properly.
Before you go and correct someone though, you should know that an Asperger’s diagnosis is typically “grandfathered” for people who were diagnosed prior to the change. This was done for legal purposes such as insurance. This means that technically speaking, Asperger’s can still exist as a recognized diagnosis for some people. For ease of communication throughout the rest of this article though, I will consider Asperger’s and autism to be one and the same and will continue to use the terms interchangeably.
So Asperger’s itself does not change with age?
That’s exactly right! Asperger’s is not a learning disability. It isn’t some disease that someone can be cured of, nor is it something that a person can learn to overcome. Autism is a cognitive disorder. The symptoms and behaviors that make up autism do not change with age, practice or learning. The thing that effects an autistic child at 10 years old will still effect them at 20, and at 30, and at 40, 50 and so on. Someone with autism might learn to hide their symptoms and may develop different ways to adapt to a neurotypical society, but the symptoms and behaviors themselves do not become less.
I remember sitting outside with my son when he was around 12. There was a big storm moving in, just a few miles away. You could see monstrous black clouds building, and lots of lightning in the distance, even though it was still fairly clear directly above us where we were. I looked at the approaching storm and said “It looks like a perfect storm is heading our way.” He scanned the entire sky and said, “where?”.
“Right there!” I said, pointing to the west where everything was happening.
“Right in front of you buddy. Where it’s all dark with huge clouds, and where all the lightning is. Don’t you see it?” I asked, perplexed.
“Oh that.”, he said. “That’s just a storm.”
“That’s what I said buddy!”, I exclaimed. “A perfect storm headed our way.”
“Storms aren’t perfect”, he said. And he meant it.
The words “perfect storm” made no sense to him. Fast forward several years later and they still don’t. Oh he’s learned what I mean when I say those words. Me personally that is. He still doesn’t picture a “perfect storm”. No, he simply knows that when I say those words, I mean an approaching storm. If YOU were to say those words to him though, you would have to explain it all over again because, as he says, “Storms aren’t perfect”, so he STILL would not see a “perfect storm” and would not know if you meant the same thing as I did or something else entirely.
We refer to that as “literal understanding”, and it’s an aspect of autism. What you need to understand is, this will not change or improve as he gets older. He has his own understanding of what “perfect” means, and his own understanding of a storm based on his own frame of reference. Every person in the world has a different view on what “perfect” is and he’ll never fully comprehend any meaning other than his own. It just isn’t possible because…well…because autism lol.
So if Asperger’s doesn’t change, how does their control of it change?
So now we’re no longer asking, does Asperger’s get worse with age, and are instead asking about an autistic person’s ability to control their behavior. I like how we’ve progressed!
As a person with autism matures and gains more life experience, their ability to not only control their behaviors, but also recognize different social dynamics improves. This is no different than with any other human! It’s also important to note that we as parents grow too. We change and adapt, and better understand what does and doesn’t work with our children.
As I stated earlier, the symptoms/behaviors/effects of autism are all still there. For example; my son does not like it when my wife and I banter with one another. He doesn’t understand that we’re joking, and either rushes to aggressively defend one of us against the other, or simply gets mad at both of us for “arguing”. It used to be bad enough that it might cause a meltdown!
Over the years we have helped him reach a point where he (usually) doesn’t express anger at us when we tease one another. He certainly no longer has meltdowns over it. That being said, he still doesn’t get it, he still doesn’t like it, and more often than not he will ask us to stop. He doesn’t recognize it any more now than he did 10 years ago, and it doesn’t bother him any less either. At the same time we don’t banter in front of him too often, and when we do, we make sure to tell him we are joking before he can become upset. This has helped a lot, though due to the fact that he simply can’t understand it, it will sometimes still bother him to the point where we recognize that to continue means we risk truly upsetting him so we stop.
Another example would be autism meltdowns. Many kids on the spectrum, much to the dismay of their parents, experience meltdowns for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps it’s from too much sensory input such as from loud noises or bright flashing lights, maybe they’re brought on due to a change in routine, sometimes it can be from being in an unfamiliar situation where they feel they have no control. Whatever the reason, meltdowns often ensue. As the child grows older, the things that cause a meltdown don’t change. What does typically change however, is the autistic person’s ability to recognize situations that might cause a meltdown allowing them to prevent themselves from getting into those scenarios. In addition to that, a person with autism develops more maturity as they age just like everyone else.
Are you saying that autistic meltdowns get better with age?
Whereas every individual is their own unique person, generally speaking, those with Asperger’s or high functioning autism will typically have less severe and less frequent meltdowns as they mature and become an adult. I should point out though, that this is also heavily dependent not only on the individual, but on their environment as well.
Look back at everything I’ve said thus far. The Asperger’s, the autism, the symptoms, the behaviors…none of those change. What changes is the maturity of the person. What changes is their ability to recognize situations and either better prepare themselves for it, or avoid it all together. The issue that caused a meltdown 10 years ago is still an issue today. It doesn’t effect the person any less.
Here’s an example: One of the common causes of a meltdown is an autistic person’s inability to control their environment. Take something like noise. Many autism parents joke that their kiddo can’t stand loud noise, yet they are the loudest person they know.
My son can have the TV turned up loud while at the same time sitting on the couch watching a video on his iPad full blast. Turn on the blender in the kitchen down the hall though, and he hates it! It used to cause a meltdown! Why? Because he doesn’t have control of the noise. It’s not that he is a control freak, it’s that by him having that control of his sensory input, noise in this case, he feels that he is in a safe environment both externally and in his own mind.
We let him know ahead of time. We ask if it’s OK, or if he would prefer to go into another room for a few minutes while the blender runs. When we do those things first, everything works out just fine. In fact I’ve never known him to go to another room when he’s given the choice. He needs that choice though. He needs that control over his personal environment. My wife and I know this because he has told us. The noise doesn’t bother him any less now than it did years ago. He has simply learned why it bothers him, and we have learned to adapt to his needs so that all of us are happy.
We’ve learned that Asperger’s does not get worse with age. We’ve also learned that Asperger’s doesn’t get better with age either. Autism is what it is, which is a cognitive disorder characterized by the effects it has on a person’s ability to communicate, their social skills and (depending on the person) other symptoms such as obsessiveness, repetitive behaviors, etc… It is not a mental illness, a disease, or a learning disability. It isn’t a spoiled child either, but is a legitimate developmental disorder.
Whereas the symptoms of autism don’t change, people with autism are humans just like everyone else. They do mature, develop more patience and gain wisdom as they age. Much of what we believe we as humans internalize in this life is strongly based on our perceptions. By changing our paradigms around autism and truly seeking to understand things through an autistic person’s point of view, we will see that it’s not a matter of better or worse, but a matter of what someone with autism experiences and how we can help.