PHOENIX, Ariz. – The Autism Society says there are more than 3.5 million Americans on the autism spectrum right now.
Often older people with autism were diagnosed later in life and did not benefit from early intervention.
The Barrow Neurological Institute and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, or SARRC, in Phoenix are teaming up to look at what happens in autistic people's brains as they age.
Jason Bunn-Parsons is one of 40 men in a first-of-its-kind study on autism and aging. He'll go to Barrow Neurological Institute every two years, so researchers can track changes in his brain with an MRI.
"It definitely is interesting to see what role my autism may or may not play in the aging process. Would it accelerate it? Would it actually slow it down?" Bunn-Parsons said.
Researchers at Barrow and SARRC have launched a longitudinal study, a study over time, to document brain changes in autistic adults.
"There are subtle differences between typically developing individuals and subtle differences across age groups that will turn around and inform what we need to do by way of treatment to help individuals live more independently for longer periods of time," said Christopher Smith, Ph.D., research director at SARRC.
Clinical neuropsychologist at Barrow Neurological Institute, Leslie Baxter, Ph.D., said the MRI's have already revealed differences in areas of the brain controlling memory, attention span, and the ability to organize and stay on task.
"They're not having problems that would cause them to be unable to function in their environment, but they may over time, need a little bit more help to stay independent," Baxter said.
Researchers are hoping they'll be able to eventually help Bunn-Parsons and countless others live life to the fullest as they reach their golden years.
Researchers, Baxter and Smith, say they want to keep the study going indefinitely. They're accepting autistic men ages 18 to 25 and 40 to 60 who have the ability to return to Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix every two years.