Age-related differences in cognition across the adult lifespan in autism spectrum disorder

Anne G Lever, Hilde M Geurts
Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research 2016, 9 (6): 666-76
It is largely unknown how age impacts cognition in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We investigated whether age-related cognitive differences are similar, reduced or increased across the adult lifespan, examined cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and explored whether objective test performance is related to subjective cognitive challenges. Neuropsychological tests assessing visual and verbal memory, generativity, and theory of mind (ToM), and a self-report measure assessing cognitive failures were administered to 236 matched participants with and without ASD, aged 20-79 years (IQ > 80). Group comparisons revealed that individuals with ASD had higher scores on visual memory, lower scores on generativity and ToM, and similar performance on verbal memory. However, ToM impairments were no longer present in older (50+ years) adults with ASD. Across adulthood, individuals with ASD demonstrated similar age-related effects on verbal memory, generativity, and ToM, while age-related differences were reduced on visual memory. Although adults with ASD reported many cognitive failures, those were not associated with neuropsychological test performance. Hence, while some cognitive abilities (visual and verbal memory) and difficulties (generativity and semantic memory) persist across adulthood in ASD, others become less apparent in old age (ToM). Age-related differences characteristic of typical aging are reduced or parallel, but not increased in individuals with ASD, suggesting that ASD may partially protect against an age-related decrease in cognitive functioning. Despite these findings, adults with ASD experience many cognitive daily challenges, which highlights the need for adequate social support and the importance of further research into this topic, including longitudinal studies. Autism Res 2016, 9: 666-676. © 2015 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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