Social Cognition in Old Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A Potential Age-Related Protective Effect

Thursday, May 11, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
E. Yarar1 and F. Happé2, (1)King's College London, London, England, United Kingdom, (2)King's College London, London, UNITED KINGDOM
Background:  Although ASD is a life-long condition and most individuals with ASD are adults, there is little research about ageing in autism. Difficulties with social cognition have been repeatedly demonstrated in children, adolescents and young adults with ASD, but only a handful of studies have included individuals aged 50 years or over . It has been widely documented that social cognition gets worse with age in the neurotypical ageing population (perhaps secondary to changes in e.g., memory); however, we still do not know how age affects social cognition in older adults with autism.

Objectives:  To gather more information about the pattern of social cognition in older versus younger adults with ASD compared to neurotypical (NT) adults, we investigated social cognition performance on a number of different tasks tapping Theory of mind and social cognition more generally. These included a novel cartoon sequencing task designed to be low in working memory load.

Methods: Performance on a set of social cognition tasks was examined in a group of adults with ASD (N=58; age-range: 19-71 years, Mage = 43.66 years, SD = 16.11) compared to an IQ-, gender-, and age-matched NT control group (N=49, age-range: 20-71 years, Mage = 44.95, SD = 17.54). Group comparisons between younger (N=49, aged 19 to 48, Mage = 29.45 years) and older adults (N=48, aged 50 to 71, Mage = 59.21 years) were made, for those individuals with and without ASD.

Results: In the NT group, older adults showed consistently poorer social cognition performance on than younger adults. No such age effect was seen in the ASD adults; although more impaired than NT controls in general, young and old adults in the ASD group did not differ significantly from one another in terms of their performance on the social cognition tasks.

Conclusions: This study represents an exploratory and preliminary step to fill the huge gap in the ASD literature concerning ageing. Results may suggest a protective effect on age-related decline in social cognition in ASD. Limitations, alternative explanations, and implications for future research will be discussed.