Taking Care of a Senior with Autism
If you search for information on providing care to someone with autism, you’ll find loads of resources about caring for autistic children and far fewer about taking care of seniors with autism. We know the senior population is growing and we know people with autism make up about 1% of the total population. Clearly that adds up to the population of seniors with autism growing as well.
Many of the kids that received the first autism diagnoses in the 1960’s are starting to age into their senior years. And many more autistic seniors have lived their lives without a diagnosis while doing their best to adapt with fewer resources than many autistic adults have today.
Seniors with autism are especially at risk for many of the issues all seniors face. Their discomfort in social situations makes social isolation a serious concern. Some autistic seniors are slower to recognize when they’re hurt or sick and prone to put off going to the hospital until things get serious. And when they do make it to the doctor, they may well have a hard time communicating what they’re feeling so that the health care professionals know how to help.
In short, autistic seniors need much of the same types of care that other seniors need, but often benefit from a different approach to caregiving that takes their particular needs into account.
For senior caregivers struggling to figure out how to provide the best possible care to a loved one with autism, here are a few tips to help.
- Look into local support groups.
Many communities have local support groups for both people who have autism and those who help care for someone who does. See what’s available within a reasonable driving distance for you and check it out. If you can tap into the local community of autistic individuals and their loved ones, you can start to build a support network of people who understand what your loved one is experiencing and how best to help them.
Many groups are largely focused on kids with autism and their parents, but you may be able to find some groups more focused on adults. Even if not, you’d still likely benefit from meeting other caregivers – even if they’re facing a different situation caring for autistic children, you’ll probably find some overlap in your experiences and opportunities to learn from each other.
- Ask direct questions to get at health issues.
A general “how are you” won’t necessarily get the answer you need if your loved one is sick or hurt. If you want to determine if they’re healthy each day or need a visit to a doctor ask them more specific questions like “does your stomach hurt” or “do you feel tired today?” Look for external signs like limping or a fever to help you catch issues they might not bother mentioning.
- In general, be specific when communicating.
While this is especially important when it comes to health issues, it’s a good rule all around. Broad or vague questions are sometimes difficult for people with autism to process or know how to respond to. In addition to being specific, give them time to respond, some might need a minute to process what you’ve said and figure out their answer. Check out these tips for communicating with someone who’s autistic for some general guidelines on how to communicate effectively and respectfully.
- Consider therapy.
If your loved one wasn’t diagnosed with autism until late in life, then they can still benefit from meeting with a therapist who specializes in autism for help learning to recognize social cues, communicate more effectively, and handle situations they find uncomfortable.
Many seniors are adverse to the idea of therapy, worrying that going means admitting there’s something wrong with them. Help them understand it’s really not a matter of their being wrong or crazy, but rather gaining some new skills to improve their relationships.
- Be aware of their sensitivities.
One of the effects of autism is that a person’s senses feel like they’re turned up. Noises can seem louder, lights brighter, or scents stronger. Where you might find it easy to tune out the sound of the air conditioner running or the cars driving by, your loved one could find them distracting.
Work on understanding what your loved one is sensitive to so you can minimize how much they’re exposed to. If loud noises are an issue, avoid loud music or movies. If they find strong scents troubling, avoid wearing strong perfumes. Be sensitive to their sensitivities.
- Pay attention to their spending.
One of the unfortunate side effects of autism is that people can have a harder time recognizing dishonesty. Not being as good at reading facial expressions or mannerisms means that autistic people are more vulnerable to scammers.
Seniors are already targeted frequently by scammers, so autistic seniors are especially at risk. You don’t necessarily need to micromanage your loved one’s finances, just keep an eye on them to make sure nothing suspicious shows up. And consider helping vet their mail and visitors to avoid letting scammers get access to them to begin with.
- Make time for the things you both like to do.
Caregiving can’t be all about the work of taking care of someone all the time. When you feel like there’s always something else that needs to be done, you can fall prey to forgetting that the person behind all those tasks is someone you care about and like spending time with. Take a break from the household chores or medication management to do the things you both like doing.
Make sure there’s time scheduled into their days to continue pursuing their interests and passions and do the same for yourself. Some of those interests and passions will be separate, but also make a point to spend time doing something together that’s distinctly not about caregiving.
Taking care of a senior with autism presents some distinct challenges, but the better you know your loved one, how they communicate, and the types of care they respond best to, the easier and more rewarding it will be. In that way, they’re no different than any other senior.
Every senior, whether they have autism or not, requires and deserves individualized care based on their particular needs. The main goal of any caregiver should be to figure out what those are and do your best to provide for those needs while still taking care of yourself.