Thinking About Autism And Dementia

It has been around four years since my father was diagnosed with dementia. Exactly when the condition set in I am unsure. I do know his condition has worsened over time, though not as drastic as the doctor forewarned. I am thankful that my father still remembers a lot about us.

Some days ago, while in the midst of a discussion with colleagues over autism, my thoughts drifted to my father. I guess what triggered this line of thinking below is what I perceived to be similarities between the approaches one can use in working with persons with autism or dementia.

By no means am I saying that both autism and dementia are the same. I am sharing what I see as similarities here.

1. Both need to be in familiar environments.

Caregivers and those who work with persons with autism or dementia will know why. A familiar environment provides comfort to them. It sends a signal that they are in a safe place. They feel secure.

With a sense of security and safety, persons with autism or dementia can feel confident and autonomous. They can carry on with their intended activities or plans, usually with less support or help from others. A safe space allows these individuals to live.

2. Both respond and function well under structures and routines.

I picked this up from observing my father and listening to my mother (she is the main caregiver). His things must be placed where they are, otherwise he will keep searching for them. Just because he has memory loss doesn’t mean he will forget where his possessions are placed.

My father also relies on information to make inferences on matters. For example, he can tell me that today will be a weekend because he is not at the senior activity center, since the center is open only during weekdays. I can also see that he relies on routines. There will always be the same set of movements when he reaches home – change clothes, puts away his keys and showers before he will settle down at his table to read the papers.

Persons with autism respond well to structures and routines. Students in special education schools must have the same timetable or routines embedded daily. It helps when they see the environment and their brains make the connections to piece what they need to do with their surroundings.

3. Both rely on visuals as prompters and cues.

Not all persons with autism are verbal. They may be unable to express their thoughts out loud, and may not even know how to use gestures and body language to communicate. That is why visuals come in handy. They can be prompters and cues for them to convey what they want, and for the caregivers and those around to understand them.

For persons with dementia, visuals are also useful, but perhaps for a different reason. They act as reminders to trigger their memories, or to move them to action. For example, my daughter drew a person with a mask, along with a message in Chinese how he may get fined for not wearing a mask. I pasted this notice on the main door, so that my father can see it before he leaves the house. My mother also hangs a mask on the door knob to reinforce the message too.


Living and caring for persons with autism or dementia can be tough. If we can adopt specific approaches that work well for them, we should do so. Not only will this help them, but it also helps the caregivers in lessening the stress and burden. Experiment with ways and means to find what will be effective.

Are you are a caregiver of someone who is autistic or has dementia? Do you have approaches or strategies that you find work well for you and for the ones you care for? Do share with me if you are comfortable.

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