Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on
September 18, 2021
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Valentina Quintana MD on:

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There are many reasons why we might suspect we’re on the autism spectrum. Maybe it’s because of how our brain works or because of the difficulties we have with social interactions and communication.

So, asking questions like “am I on the autism spectrum?” or “am I autistic?” has become normal queries mental health professionals get.

Let’s explore this question in-depth to find out what you need to know about being on the autism spectrum.

Let’s get started.

What is the autism spectrum?

The autism spectrum refers to the vast range of symptoms, skills, and abilities found in people with autism.

It is a very broad spectrum with no clear-cut line between “normal” behaviors and those that are considered autistic or not normal.

According to Autism Speaks, an estimated one in 68 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder.

The Autism Spectrum is not an official medical or clinical term but a way to describe the many different characteristics of those who have been diagnosed on the spectrum.

Some people may be mildly affected by their symptoms, and for others, it can cause social isolation and intellectual disability.

There is no cure for autism, but treatments and therapies can help manage the condition.

Am I on the autism spectrum?

Let’s discuss why you might ask this question.

First, “am I on the autism spectrum?”—you could be if your symptoms line up with those of someone who has been diagnosed as having Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by a medical professional.

Second, “am I autistic?”—answering yes to this question does not mean that you have an ASD.

It just means that you may be on the spectrum of autism and autism-like traits or behaviors, which many mental health experts call Autism Spectrum Traits (ASTs), also known as the autism spectrum quotient.

Some people prefer to use “on the spectrum” more than “on the autistic spectrum.”

Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders

There are three types of diagnostic markers for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These include:

  • social communication difficulties
  • repetitive behaviors
  • restricted interests

You may show at least two signs from the first group or one sign each from both groups.

Social Communication Difficulties

Social communication difficulties are the first indicator of ASD.

You may have problems with understanding and using non-verbal cues, body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice to communicate your message.

Some people experience this as an inability to read another person’s emotions correctly due to a lack of empathy for others’ feelings and experiences.

Repetitive Behaviors

You may have repetitive behaviors that are actions done over and over again in the same way.

This can be part of a routine or ritual you follow, but there is also self-stimulatory behavior where you might flap your hands or flick your fingers repeatedly for no particular reason other than it feels good.

Some people might also show repetitive body movements like rocking or arm flapping in a constant way.

Restricted Interests

Your restricted interests may be an intense fascination with one specific topic that you are always talking about.

This can include anything from the weather to trains, but it’s your favorite subject of interest, and you can’t stop talking about it.

You might also have a preoccupation with parts of objects or one part of your body, like the color “blue,” for example.

Other ASD Signs and Symptoms

There are many other possible signs you could show if you were on the autism spectrum disorder, including:

  • difficulty focusing attention
  • being unaware of environmental conditions like temperature
  • engaging in self-injurious behaviors (SIB)
  • abnormal eating patterns

Some people might also show noticeable delays in social or language skills when they are younger than three years old.

For example, if you never spoke by the time you were four because there was no receptive language to understand what others were saying to you, then a diagnosis could be made at that time.

Keep in mind, though, every child is different, and some children develop language skills slowly or more quickly than others.

But how can you tell if someone is on the autism spectrum? It’s difficult to say with certainty.

Symptoms can vary significantly among people who are on the spectrum, and they often emerge gradually over time, making it difficult to say when they first appeared.

Many signs of autism show up in early childhood; however, some children grow out of them as they mature into adulthood.

Other symptoms may not appear until later in life, depending on the person.

If you think your child might be showing signs of ASD (autism), contact their doctor right away to get tested and learn more about what could be happening with them.

Reduced Neural Habituation in the Amygdala and Social Impairments of People on the Spectrum

Research has shown that people with autism spectrum disorder are less likely to naturally respond when they see someone familiar or stop reacting when they hear a loud noise.

This is called neural habituation, which reduces our natural response over time if nothing changes in what we’re seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.

People with ASD have reduced habituation in their amygdala, the part of our brain that helps us regulate emotions and react to changes in our environment.

This means that every time we see someone familiar or hear a loud noise, it can affect them more than people who do not have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Social Impairments Related To ASD Symptoms

There are social impairments that are related to ASD symptoms, including:

  • difficulty with maintaining a conversation and “turn-taking” (e.g., not speaking at the right time or talking too much)
  • problem with understanding jokes, sarcasm, and other figures of speech
  • trouble recognizing or understanding others’ feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • expecting that you should always know what is going on in the environment around you (e.g., knowing when to start a conversation)

Some people also have difficulty looking other people in the eyes when they communicate with them.

This is because they may find it difficult to understand or interpret what others are thinking and feeling, but this does not mean that someone isn’t interested in you.

It can also make the conversation more challenging for both parties involved if looking into their eyes makes an ASD person uncomfortable.

Understanding Emotions of People on the Autism Spectrum

People with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) can have a hard time understanding other people’s emotions.

This is because they may struggle to read facial expressions or tone of voice, which are essential parts of emotional communication.

It’s also typical for someone who has ASD to have a tough time understanding their own emotions.

For example, they may not be able to tell when something makes them angry or upset because it doesn’t register with how someone without ASD might feel in that situation.

So, if you notice your child is having problems understanding other people’s feelings and struggles to identify their own feelings, it may be a sign that they’re on the autism spectrum.

As I said earlier, every child is different, and some children develop language skills slowly or more quickly than others.

If your child seems to struggle with certain types of social interactions for an extended period of time without improvement, you should take them in to see a mental health professional to get tested.

Borderline Autism in Adults

Some adults live with a form of autism called Asperger syndrome or borderline autism.

This is often referred to as “high-functioning” ASD, as those who have it can function well enough in society that they aren’t diagnosed until adulthood.

If you think your adult child might be living with this type of disorder, you can get them tested by a mental health professional.

People who have borderline autism might struggle with symptoms of other types of ASD, but they are able to go out in public on their own and work every day without others noticing that there is anything amiss.

However, some people experience symptoms more intensely than others which means it’s vital for you and your family to seek a diagnosis as soon as possible.

Signs of High-Functioning Autism in Adults Checklist

If you’re worried that your child might have high-functioning autism, here are some key symptoms to look out for. These include:

  • difficulty with social interactions and relationships
  • difficulty finding or keeping a job
  • problems getting along with co-workers
  • trouble understanding other people’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and points of view
  • lack of empathy for others
  • trouble with verbal and nonverbal communication
  • social awkwardness or inappropriate behavior
  • tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors

This can be tough, as people on the autism spectrum might struggle to interpret body language or tone of voice. So if they seem distant when you’re trying to chat with them, it could just mean that they are having issues understanding how to communicate effectively at that moment. 

While this doesn’t mean that they don’t care about you, it does make communicating with them more challenging.

Autism Diagnosis for Adults

The process of getting diagnosed as an adult is a lot simpler than diagnosing children.

In fact, it’s possible to get tested by a professional without your parents’ consent if you’re over 18 years old.

However, some people aren’t aware that they might be on the autism spectrum until later in life because their symptoms were subtle or they didn’t have the language skills to understand what was going on with them.

If you think that this is true for you, there’s no harm in asking your mental health expert about getting tested and seeking a diagnosis.

How Different Types of Autism are Diagnosed

There are three types of autism:

  1. Classic Autism
  2. Asperger syndrome
  3. High-functioning autism

If you suspect that you might be on the spectrum but haven’t been diagnosed yet, it’s important to know how each type of ASD is diagnosed.

Classic Autism Diagnosis

Someone who has classic autism will have significant challenges with communication skills as well as social interactions.

Their symptoms will be more intense than someone with Asperger syndrome, which is also on the autism spectrum but considered at a lower level.

This degree of intensity can make it harder to diagnose classic autism in adults when compared with other types of ASD.

Asperger Syndrome Diagnosis

People with Asperger syndrome will experience the same challenges with social interactions and communication that those who have classic autism do, but their symptoms are not as intense.

This means that it’s easier to diagnose people with Asperger’s because they might be able to function better in society than someone with classic autism would.

High-Functioning Autism Diagnosis

If your symptoms are not as intense, it can be easy to miss that you might have high-functioning autism.

However, since your symptoms are likely to be less severe than those who have classic autism or Asperger syndrome, this type of ASD is often diagnosed later in an individual’s life.

People who have high-functioning autism might also experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble with social interaction and communication skills, but not as severe as those seen in classic autism.
  • Making eye contact or holding a conversation can be challenging for someone with high-functioning autism.
  • Mild to moderate delays in language development.

Because of this, it’s helpful to seek out a professional that is experienced in diagnosing adults with high-functioning autism. 

Autism Treatment for Adults

When it comes to autism treatment for adults, your options are more limited than children and teenagers.

This is because health professionals don’t yet know how effective the treatments that work for younger people will be in adults with ASD.

However, there are several therapies available for anyone who suspects they may be on the spectrum.

These therapies are beneficial if you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or other neurological issues that could be related to your ASD.

Some common types of treatment include:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • social skills training groups
  • in-home support services
  • occupational therapy
  • speech and language therapy
  • psychotherapy
  • medications
  • nutrition plan
  • exercise plan

If any of these sound helpful to you, it’s crucial that you tell your therapist.

ADHD and Autism

Many people with ADHD also have symptoms of autism, which makes it important to consider both conditions when getting diagnosed. 

This is because if you have ADHD, it’s possible that some of your symptoms could be attributed to autism.

Though both conditions are different on their own, they can overlap with each other and cause similar challenges for adults who live with either condition.

For example, someone who has ADHD might struggle socially as someone else would with classic autism.

But unlike classic autism, this person would experience challenges with inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity.

Since ADHD and ASD can overlap so easily, it’s essential to work with a  professional who understands the differences between them and how they might affect you as an adult. 

When getting diagnosed with either ADHD or ASD, your therapist should:

  • Ask you questions about your symptoms and behaviors.
  • Conduct a complete physical exam to rule out other medical reasons for your ongoing challenges with ADHD or ASD.
  • Help you determine what type of condition (ADHD, autism, etc.) is best suited for your needs based on the types of symptoms that affect your life.
  • Help you with any additional neurodevelopmental conditions that can impact the symptoms of your ADHD or ASD diagnosis and overall wellbeing (such as depression, anxiety, etc.)
  • Diagnose both conditions if necessary.

If you think either one might be affecting your quality of life and ability to function well in society, it’s important to seek out a professional who is experienced in diagnosing adults with high-functioning autism.

With the right support, it’s possible to manage symptoms of either condition and live well as an adult on the spectrum.

Concluding Thoughts

Once your therapist or physician diagnoses you, they can help direct you towards treatments that are most suitable to your needs and lifestyle.

For example, some people have found that therapy for social skills doesn’t work, but medication has helped them manage their symptoms like inattention and hyperactivity.

Finding the right tools can make all of the difference in living well with either ADHD or ASD as an adult.

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