The news media, pediatricians' offices, and parenting books are all full of information about autism in children; however, it can be a challenge to identify symptoms of adult autism. In decades past, autism received far less attention from the medical and education communities than it does today. This means there are likely many adults living with undiagnosed autism. Learning about the symptoms of autism can help these individuals find treatment options.
Forming close relationships can be challenging for adults on the autism spectrum. Idiosyncratic behaviors and language limitations can severely affect these individuals' ability to form friendships. Additionally, limited perspective-taking abilities and difficulty listening to others can present a challenge in relationships.
Similarly, romantic relationships can be incredibly difficult for individuals with autism. In addition to the challenges that come with regular friendships, there are many non-verbal cues associated with romantic interactions.
Problems Taking Cues From Others
For many adults with autism, non-verbal communication can present a significant challenge. These individuals may have difficulty interpreting facial expressions and gestures. They may find it hard to establish and maintain eye contact while talking with others.
Autistic adults may feel that they are always "missing" something when interacting with other people. If you find that you frequently misread other people, it may mean you have this symptom of autism.
Many people with autism experience extreme over- or under-sensitivity to stimuli, known as sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction. According to Psychology Today, this sensory processing disorder can present a major social challenge for adults with autism. Meeting new people brings in new sensory information, including smells, sounds, sights, and other types of input. This can lead some adults with autism to avoid new social interactions.
If you find you cannot stand certain sensations or constantly crave a particular type of sensory input, you may have this disorder. If the sensory challenges interfere with your ability to interact socially and also correspond with other symptoms of adult autism, you may be on the spectrum.
Lack of Empathy and Shared Perspective
Understanding where other people are coming from can be challenging for all adults but for those with autism, it can be even more difficult. Many individuals with autism struggle to understand the perspectives of others, which can come across as a lack of empathy. It can also make it difficult to connect with others on a deeper level.
This perspective challenge can also present a problem when it comes to humor, leaving many adults with autism to misinterpret jokes and sarcastic comments. The lack of skills to understand empathy can lead to many social problems.
According to WebMD, up to 40 percent of people diagnosed with autism are never able to speak. Adults who are completely non-verbal may be on the autism spectrum, but verbal communication can still present a challenge for those who can speak at an age-appropriate level.
Adults with autism may find it challenging to make their needs known to others or to start and maintain a conversation. They may find that the words they want to say simply disappear when they begin talking and processing thoughts into spoken language may feel impossible.
One hallmark of adult autism includes very specific interests. Many adults with autism are extremely knowledgeable about certain topics, such as aviation, engineering, word origins, and history to name a few. This hyper-focus on a particular area can be extremely enjoyable for the individual, but it can present major challenges as well.
If you are very interested in a particular topic and discuss this topic at length with other people, even if they appear to not be interested, this can be an indication of autism. The intense interest, coupled with perspective-taking challenges, can result in social difficulties.
Seeking Comfort in Repetition
For some individuals, repeating the same words, phrases, or behaviors can provide great security. The outcome of these routines is predictable and is under the control of the individual. However, these repetitive behaviors can become disruptive to their life.
Need for Routine
For individuals of any age with autism, there are a lot of unknowns in the world. Many social and communication skills others take for granted are mysterious to those on the spectrum. One way to provide comfort and predictability is to rely on routines.
For adults with autism, the need for routine can take many forms:
- Dislike of travel
- Refusal to try new foods or restaurants
- Following the same schedule every day
- Feeling great discomfort when you need to deviate from your routine
- Difficulty changing plans
- Following the same route to get from one place to another
According to WebMD, up to 10 percent of autistic individuals display some kind of savant skill. This means they excel in a particular area, such as mathematics, music, or history. Adults with autism may have exceptional memories, allowing them to remember entire chapters and books of information. In a study of young adults linking savant skills to autism, about 30 percent of adults with autism qualified as having a savant skill, a number that is high compared to the neurotypical population.
Sleep Problems and Anxiety
WebMD also reports that as many as 70 percent of people with autism have problems with sleep. This may be due to sensory issues. While insomnia itself is not a characteristic of autism, this is something to keep in mind if you have other symptoms of autism.
Anxiety is a common problem in adults with autism. This anxiety can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including concentration problems, difficulty controlling your temper, preoccupation with a topic, and depression.
As with many disorders, individual symptoms are common in the general population. However, if you notice you display several of these characteristics and they are negatively impacting your life, consider consulting a professional. Speak to your doctor about a referral to an autism specialist, or consult a psychologist or psychiatrist. With specialized treatment, you may be able to improve your quality of life significantly.