Ageing, Social Cognition and Autism Spectrum Disorders (PhD in Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Research)

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Social Genetic and Dev Psychiatry Centre

Abstract

This study will explore how social understanding skills change with age, whether these changes precede age-related decline of memory and other aspects of cognition, and what impact they have on mental and physical health and well-being. To do this we will be working with older autistic adults, and with the PROTECT study, an online study of >5,000 older adults (aged 50+) collecting longitudinal information on ageing and cognitive change.

Social isolation and loneliness in old age are associated with lower well-being, and higher levels of depression/anxiety. It has also been linked to greater age-related decline of various cognitive (e.g. memory) abilities, and increased risk of dementia. If social abilities decrease with old age, this may contribute to isolation - or vice versa - leading to worse mental and physical health.

Autistic adults, who have clinical-level social difficulties, often report feeling lonely, which is associated with depression and anxiety. This may put them at greater risk of age-related cognitive decline, and dementia. Very little is known about old age in autism.

By creating new tests of social understanding to use online and in person, this study aims to explore whether poor social skills are linked to cognitive decline and quality of life in old age.

Publications

10 25 50

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Stewart GR (2020) The mental and physical health profiles of older adults who endorse elevated autistic traits. in The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences

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Stewart GR (2020) Theory of mind performance in younger and older adults with elevated autistic traits. in Autism research : official journal of the International Society for Autism Research

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Stewart GR (2020) The Mental and Physical Health of Older Adults With a Genetic Predisposition for Autism. in Autism research : official journal of the International Society for Autism Research

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2106586 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2018 30/09/2021 Gavin Stewart
 
Description Using the rich data available to us in the PROTECT data set, we have been able to examine various health and cognition profiles of older adults with high autistic traits.
We found that older adults with high autistic traits report:
1. More mental (but not physical) health problems than those with low/few autistic traits.
2. More sleep problems (including overall satisfaction and quality) than those with low/few autistic traits.
3. More current symptoms of PTSD and past trauma than those with low/few autistic traits.
4. More experiences of self-harming behaviour, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behaviours than those with low/few autistic traits.
5. Lower performance scores in a wide set of executive functioning and memory tasks than those with low/few autistic traits.

Using a separate sample of middle and older autistic adults (collected during the PhD studentship) we found that autistic adults report:
1. Lower overall quality of life than non-autistic middle and older adults.
2. More symptoms of loneliness and higher rates of social isolation than middle and older adults.
Exploitation Route This PhD has examined a broad range of experiences that older autistic and high autistic trait adults may experience in later life. This information could be used to inform policy and healthcare provision, to ensure that older autistic and high autistic trait adults are receiving the support they need as they transition into older age.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare