Autism in adults: characteristics and common problems
These are the common problems among adults with autism spectrum disorder.
When we hear the word "autism" the first thing that comes to mind are children with difficulties in socializing, communicating with others and, also, some kind of intellectual disability.
This description is not at all generalizable, firstly because autism spectrum disorders are associated with different degrees of impairment, there being some very functional autistic people and, secondly, because autism is not only a child's thing, it is also present in adults.
We will now address the issue of autism in adultsexplaining why there are cases in which ASD is diagnosed in adulthood, what problems and explanations may be behind it and the importance of investigating this disorder in adulthood.
How is autism expressed in adults?
In popular culture, there is quite a misconception of what autism is and how it is diagnosed. Many people imagine autistic people as people who have serious problems socializing, unable to communicate, very sensitive to noise and with severe intellectual disability. Believing that this definition accurately describes most autistic people, many people believe that autism is something that cannot go unnoticed in childhood.
While it is true that some autistic people may meet the description just mentioned, we should not ignore that autism refers to a whole spectrum of alterations, not to a specific way of being. People with autism can be very diverse, have very different degrees of impairment and their ability to function in everyday life is not the same in all of them.
Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD are defined as chronic neurological dysfunctions with a strong genetic basis that, from an early age, give rise to problems in social interaction, communication and lack of flexibility in reasoning and various behaviors. The severity of the problems that may occur in these areas is very varied, so that some people will need a lot of help while others, with certain difficulties, will be able to cope with day-to-day problems.
Many people discover that they have autism when they are adults.. The reason for this is that they are people with a more or less mild ASD, manifesting relatively mild problems within the areas typically affected in people with autism. They have had problems throughout their lives and were never seen as completely normal people, but because their problem was mild there was never a need to see a professional for a diagnosis. They were seen as oddballs, maniacs or too sensitive for their age, but never seen as probably autistic.
As we said, many people have a very specific idea of what it is to be autistic. This stereotype implies prejudices about how functional the autistic person can be, thinking that a person with ASD is probably autistic.The idea is that a person with ASD will be condemned to receive support all his or her life, will never be able to work and will never be independent. However, many autistic people who do not even know they are autistic have good jobs, have managed to raise a family, enjoy a good economic situation and do not seem to need much support, although they may have had more difficulties than a neurotypical person.
Why is it not detected in childhood?
There may be several reasons why an adult with ASD was not diagnosed in childhood. As we said, contrary to what many believe, ASD does not have to attract as much attention as one might think. Yes, there are problems with sociability, communication, inflexibility in changes of routine and other warning signs but, because these people have mild autism, their behavior is seen as odd but not too worrisome, and their parents saw no reason to take them to the hospital. and their parents did not see any reason to take them for professional consultation.
Another thing that can happen is directly related to the heritability of autism. As we said, autism has a high genetic component, so that in the same family there may be several members with the disorder. What sometimes happens is that the parents of the child with ASD did not take him for consultation because their child's behavior resembled that of one of their parents, attributing this to the fact that he had inherited the same personality. What actually happened was that this parent had ASD and, because his child behaved like him, he saw no reason to worry.
The support of family members, teachers and the personality and ability to overcome of many boys and girls with ASD can contribute to mask the disorder, making their difficulties go unnoticed and they end up overcoming them without seeing the need to resort to psychological or psychiatric support. The person with autism has been learning techniques to efficiently manage his difficulties, without knowing that they were really caused by a disorder, which has led him to end up having a more or less successful life.
As people with mild autism progress through life in the same way as others with some difficulties, they do not consider going to a psychologist to find out if they have the disorder or not. In addition, in our society we have very much internalized the idea that whoever has a more or less functional life can hardly have a psychological disorder, so that as these people go on with their lives they do not see the need to see a mental health professional..
Another reason why it goes unnoticed in childhood is the lack of intellectual difficulties combined with obsessive behaviors. Some boys and girls with autism are very good at all kinds of tasks in which a pattern has to be found, something very useful in subjects such as mathematics, physics and chemistry. As many parents and teachers focus exclusively on academic performance, if they see that their child is doing well, they are satisfied and do not consider the need to address the social sphere or communication problems with others.
The main problem of adults with autism
The main problem of adults with ASD, no matter how successful they are, is social relationships.and this affects both their personal and work life. They have a hard time making friends, and even harder to keep them. While some may be very good at making friends and even appear to be very outgoing and sociable, their friendliness is rather lacking. Communication problems give rise to misunderstandings and generate uncomfortable situations that cause them to lose friends.
Another aspect is their difficulty in lying, catching sarcasm or making use of social conventions. Many people with ASD are very sincere and honest, sometimes so straightforward that they clash with social habits and requirements culturally considered cordial. For example, if someone asks them if the dress they are wearing looks good on them and it turns out that it looks horrible, the autistic person may be very sincere to the point of unintentionally hurting them.
Communication and sociability problems may seem minor if one is generally functional, but in the long run they involve significant problems. Being so sincere, honest, and not understanding or making use of social formalisms makes their relationships, especially romantic ones, more likely to fail. In fact, this is the main reason why many functionally autistic people who manage to get married end up divorcing after a few years.
How is it detected in adults?
As we said, there are many autistic people who discover that they are autistic as adults and also have the suspicion that their own parents were autistic. But it also happens the other way around: having a child suspected of being autistic and, during diagnosis, beginning to suspect that they are also autistic. Many adults receive their diagnosis shortly after their child's diagnosis has been confirmed, and this story is becoming increasingly common. and this story is becoming increasingly common.
Over the years parents have become more aware of the need to see a psychologist with their children at some point in their development. While it is still not the general rule, many parents do, especially if they notice something unusual about their children. They hope it is nothing, but they tell themselves that prevention is better than cure and go to the professional's office. There they discover that yes, their children do have ASD and that it was good to confirm it early so that they could intervene as soon as possible.
As all good parents should do, many of those who discover that their children have ASD begin to do some research to make sure that they are handling the situation as well as possible.. During their research they begin to realize that they themselves have characteristics that could well be considered autistic, so they decide to see a psychologist and be evaluated where they receive confirmation that they also have ASD.
Everyone is different and everyone assumes the diagnosis differently, but many people are relieved to learn that they have ASD. After years of being misunderstood, of being called "weirdos," of being blamed for behaving too rudely or being uninterested in their social relationships, these people discover that they are this way because of a mental disorder, not because of lack of interest or social incompetence.
Understanding and coming to terms with their disorder, people with ASD feel much better, feel more capable of taking care of themselves, understanding the difficulties of their daily lives, progressing in their work life, and making progress in their social life.They are able to progress in their working, social and personal lives. In addition, once the diagnosis is confirmed, they begin to receive psychological strategies to manage aspects of the disorder, significantly improving their lives. If the patient was functional before knowing they had ASD, now they will be even more so.
Focusing on childhood, ignoring adulthood: the situation of adult autistic patients
So far we have discussed the lives of autistic individuals who are diagnosed with the disorder as adults. As we have said, among the reasons why a person with ASD has not been diagnosed in childhood is to present mild symptoms of the disorder. As in their childhood their communication and social interaction problems did not attract too much attention, their environment did not worry too much, and they have had a more or less normal growth and have reached adulthood with a more or less functional life.
However, not all people with ASD are this "lucky". Those who manifest the disorder with the worst severity are easily diagnosed in childhood because they attract a lot of attention. This is one of the reasons why both diagnosis and treatment for people with ASD is very much focused on the early years because that is where it is first detected if the "classic" disorder is present. However, this disorder does not disappear with the passage of time, this disorder does not disappear with the passage of time: it is still present in adolescence and adulthood..
It is true that in recent decades there has been progress in both the diagnosis and understanding of ASD, with more and more professionals. However, considering that there is still a lack of professionals specialized in autism in childhood, the situation is even worse for autism in adulthood. Adult autism has not been as well researched and treated as that detected in children, which is a problem because at the end of the day autistic children become autistic adults and will require help.
Leaving aside adult autistic people who have been functional most of their lives without knowing they had the disorder, the general situation of adults with autism is not very encouraging. At the end of compulsory education, where there are supports provided by the state, these aids suddenly end, leaving autistic people alone in front of the world, a world that is difficult for them to understand and that generates anxiety, stress and confusion. As a consequence, many autistic people stop studying and relatively few (compared to the general population) manage to find employment without help.
Taking all this into account, there is a need for more research into autism.more research is needed on autism in adulthood, to improve existing therapeutic techniques and to create new ones, in order to provide wellbeing for this group. in order to provide wellbeing to this type of patients. Those with ASD should also be kept busy at work, since it has been shown that working helps them to become more independent, as well as making their symptoms milder and learning ways to manage their daily lives, applicable to both work and family life.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Hall, D. (1991). Shy, withdrawn or autistic? British Medical Journal, 302, 125-136.
- Alonso, J. R. (2020). Autism in adults. Neuroscience: José Ramón Alonso's blog. Retrieved from: https://jralonso.es/2020/12/14/autismo-en-adultos/
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)