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Diagnosing Asperger's in the Elderly

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 11/11/2010

Although Asperger's syndrome has been around for many years, it was only classified as a distinct condition in 1992. This means that many elderly people could not have been diagnosed as children as the signs and symptoms were not recognized.

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    Recognizing Asperger's Syndrome in the Elderly

    Asperger's syndrome is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. People with the condition are often regarded as strange but they may hold down jobs and usually manage to get by in society. Elderly folk may realize that they are different to co-workers but pass it off as their personality type.

    There is evidence that Asperger's syndrome can run in families and elderly people may become aware of their condition when a younger family member is diagnosed. Parents normally read up on the signs and symptoms and may recognize the same signs in their older relatives.

    Asperger syndrome and the elderly are being connected more and more as the condition becomes better known and therapies and help are more freely available.

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    Signs and Symptoms of Asperger's in the Elderly

    Adults with Asperger's syndrome present with similar signs of the condition as do young people. In some cases, the problems may not be quite as pronounced as the adult may have developed coping mechanisms. Elderly people with Asperger's normally display the following symptoms:

    • Communication problems are common and the person often engages in long-winded, one-sided conversations, not realizing they are boring the other party. Information may be shared in a lecture-like manner and with little or no facial expressions. Body language is weak and eye contact poor
    • Social interaction is difficult and the person with Asperger's is normally too detached or too intense. They struggle to understand the full meaning of relationships and sexual issues may be a problem. Some are unable to distinguish between date rape and seduction
    • Obsessional interests are common and the person may work in a position that is related to this interest. Computers are frequently the focus of attention and collectibles such as stamps and coins are also favored. Some elderly people may also be obsessed with trains, airplanes or other forms of transport
    • Elderly people often like routine and Asperger's syndrome may magnify this to extremes. They may have rigid routines and become unsettled and difficult if they are pressed out of their comfort zones

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    How are Elderly People Diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome

    While some older people find a diagnosis helpful, others refuse to accept it and prefer to carry on as they have been for years. Accepting a diagnosis means a person will often look back and examine past actions and decisions. For an elderly person, set in their ways, this may be an alarming prospect.

    At this time, there is no single diagnostic tool for Asperger's syndrome that is universally recognized. A family member may read an article about Asperger's syndrome and the elderly and see the signs in an aged relative. If the subject is broached, it is possible the person will visit a doctor for confirmation. An evaluation may include a review of childhood behavior, analysis of school reports if available, and the person will be asked to fill out a questionnaire. Even if medical opinion is not sought, the knowledge that signs and symptoms of Asperger's syndrome are apparent can bring relief and understanding in some areas.

    A firm diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome in an elderly person may be met with resistance but can be helpful. Even if the person does not want to change or alter their behavior and routines, it can be comforting to know there is a reason for their lifestyle.

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    Resources

    Aspires

    The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008


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