Seeing Autism Symptoms in Adults

Chalk drawing on asphalt of a man's side profile and brain

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a common neurological condition that affects about 1 in 59 children, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of reported cases of autism in U.S. children has more than doubled from 2004 to 2014.

Initially, autism was described as a rare childhood disorder, driving researchers to focus on this demographic. As a result, prevalence rates rose and, as Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment notes, ASD is now recognized as a lifelong condition. The knowledge of and support for adults with the disorder are still in their infancy.

The wave of research and awareness into ASD has resulted in people noticing autism symptoms in adults. These individuals did not grow up with the current level of knowledge about ASD, which has resulted in an influx of recent diagnoses for adults.

Diagnostic Criteria and Characteristics

There are two primary sets of criteria required for an ASD diagnosis, based on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction. Context can include insufficiencies in social-emotional reciprocity (such as abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversations), nonverbal communication behaviors (such as abnormal eye contact) and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.
  2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities. Examples can include repetitive motor movements, inflexible adherence to routines, restricted and fixed interests, as well as hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input.

ASD is diverse in nature. As a result, “challenges and support needs can range wildly from minor to very extensive,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Any two people on the spectrum may and can exhibit different sets of strengths and weaknesses.

Changes in diagnostic criteria from the DSM-IV to the DSM-5 further illustrate the variety found in autism. For instance, the DSM-IV included Asperger’s syndrome, which is often considered to be a high-functioning type of ASD. It along with other forms of autism were removed from the DSM-5 to streamline diagnostic criteria. Many laypeople and professionals still use the term “Asperger’s syndrome” to refer to its unique characteristics.

The Trend of Recognizing Autism Symptoms in Adults

There are plenty of reasons why some adults are not aware that they are on the spectrum.

  • Misdiagnoses can be a factor. People who have ASD may have been previously misdiagnosed by a condition such as intellectual disability, according to Scientific American. Diagnoses of autism have risen while those of intellectual disability have decreased.
  • Autism can be difficult to pinpoint. The “spectrum” element of ASD is vital to understanding how this disorder can present in different people. There is a great deal of variance with how it affects people across the spectrum. Some symptoms are easy to see simply as a quirk, such as aloofness, shyness or insistence on a particular routine.
  • People who are unaware they have been living with ASD can seemingly overcome challenges on their own. Arguably, that is much easier given the advances in technology. In NPR, a person who was diagnosed in adulthood with ASD realized how the Internet helped with social interactions, a hallmark struggle for people on the spectrum. He described the Internet as “a culture that supported each other through the difficult times in this profoundly non-autistic world.”

As healthcare professionals and the public improve their understanding of ASD, it has become more common for people to notice autism symptoms in adults. Sometimes it happens in a seemingly random way. Tony Attwood, an English psychologist and leading resource on Asperger’s syndrome, was discussing the condition on a TV program when several people watching linked the discussion to their loved ones.

“The switchboard of the television company was subsequently inundated with calls from parents who recognized the signs of Asperger’s syndrome in their adult son or daughter who, due to their age, had never had access to the diagnostic knowledge that is available for children today. In the next few years there is likely to be a deluge of referrals of adults for a diagnostic assessment for Asperger’s syndrome.”

Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome

Advantages of a Late Diagnosis

People who shared their stories of a late ASD diagnosis in NPR highlighted some advantages to late-life diagnosis. It can be a relief to receive a diagnosis that accurately touches upon certain struggles and strengths. “I felt vindicated,” one person wrote. “So much of my life had always been such a mystery, but I had a real answer now.” Another said that “I finally made sense to myself.”

Atwood outlined several advantages of a diagnosis for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome. Along with greater self-understanding is the support that people can receive. Individuals may no longer need to meet certain expectations, and other people can be more accepting and supportive. Such a diagnosis can help people understand that someone with ASD or Asperger’s syndrome has genuine difficulties with certain experiences, like social situations, that others find enjoyable. There are also implications for greater support in classroom and workplace environments.

Employers are noticing the unique value that people with ASD can offer. U.S. News & World Report noted that some organizations are proactively recruiting people on the spectrum given the strengths associated with autism, such as the ability to focus intensely on topics and high attention to detail. For example, it reported on one person who was earning a graduate degree in math who applied for a job at a software testing company. Even though he didn’t have background in software, he earned the job after noticing subtle differences in screenshots of websites during the interview.

While gaining an advantage in the workforce is noted, it’s not necessarily the norm. There is still stigma surrounding autism, so individuals with ASD should exercise caution when disclosing a diagnosis in the workplace or other environments. Additional awareness and education is needed for people to support individuals on the spectrum.

Supporting People with ASD and Other Conditions

Brescia University’s online Psychology degree gives you the knowledge and skills to support people with autism and other conditions as Applied Behavior Analysis is a common therapy for those with autism. When you graduate, you can pursue entry-level positions like case manager, and when you’re ready to advance, this degree provides an excellent basis for your master’s degree or doctorate in psychology. With an advanced degree, you’ll be qualified for positions involving counseling and therapy.

If you don’t want to commit to a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue an online associate degree in human services as a great starting point. You’ll be able to secure entry level roles or continue your education with a bachelor’s degree in fields like psychology, social work, theology or integrated studies.