Diagnosing Autism in Adults
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a chronic developmental disorder that persists throughout the lifespan. The symptoms of autism first appear in childhood, often before age 2, but they aren’t always recognized. Experts say approximately 1% of the adults (and children) have autism, but many adults have never been diagnosed, largely because in years past, caregivers, teachers and healthcare providers weren’t as familiar with the signs and symptoms of autism. Undiagnosed autism in adults is often associated with feelings of shame and isolation.
Appropriate diagnosis can help adults with ASD better understand their strengths and challenges and point the way to potentially life-changing treatment. Learn more about the signs of autism in adults and how adults with autism spectrum disorder can seek treatment and support.
Common symptoms of ASD in adults include:
Difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues, including facial expressions and body language
Trouble maintaining conversation
Tendency to “lecture” on topics of interest
Difficulty adapting to changes in routine
Deep knowledge of and interest in one specific topic
Few or no close friendships
Unusual sensitivity to sound and touch
Robotic, monotone voice
Difficulty maintaining eye contact
Preference for solitary vs. group activities
Tendency to make involuntary noises
Difficulty understanding and responding to others’ emotions
Often, adults with undiagnosed with ASD are considered “quirky.” Many have felt “different” throughout their lives; some have long felt excluded and awkward in social situations. Approximately 40% of people with ASD have average or above-average intelligence, and many are gifted in music, math or art. Some adults with ASD have been misdiagnosed with other disorders, such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some adults have ASD and another mental health challenge.
Unfortunately, there are no blood or lab tests that can diagnose ASD, and very few healthcare professionals specialize in diagnosing and treating adults with autism. If you think you (or a loved one) may have ASD, ask your healthcare provider to recommend a psychiatrist who regularly works with people with autism. Some developmental pediatricians, child psychologists and pediatric neurologists will also evaluate adults. Or, contact an autism treatment center and ask for a referral. Autism Speaks maintains a list of hospitals and physicians who diagnose and treat ASD.
Healthcare providers use direct observation and reports from patients and family members to diagnose (or rule out) autism. During your appointment, the healthcare provider will observe your body language and tone of voice. He or she will ask you questions about your experiences in school, at work, and at home.
You may be diagnosed with ASD as an adult if:
You’ve had persistent problems with communication and socialization.
Your symptoms began in childhood (even if they weren’t recognized at the time).
Your symptoms cause difficulty in your life.
Adults who have autism may benefit from applied behavior analysis, a type of treatment that helps people identify unhelpful behaviors and learn new communication and socialization skills. Cognitive behavioral is another treatment option. Many people find support groups helpful as well. Ask your healthcare provider if there are any autism support groups near you.
Many adults who receive an ASD diagnosis feel a sense of relief because they finally have an explanation for their symptoms. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment can help adults with autism live fulfilling lives.