Written by Dr. Tara Boustany, Pharm.D on
September 19, 2021
Written by Dr. Tara Boustany, Pharm.D on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

What is autism in adults? There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about autism. This can make it difficult for people to understand what autism is. Sometimes autism can be mistaken for ADHD.

In this article, we’ll discuss the signs of adult autism. We will talk about how to figure out if someone has autism, and what they can do after they are diagnosed.

We’ll also talk about how autistic adults behave at home and at work. There are different types of autism, one of those is high functioning autism. You can use our checklist to see if your loved one has this type of autism or not.

What are the signs of autism in adults?

The term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of problems. Some people with autism can have difficulties in social interactions. Or they might repeat certain actions and might not speak well.

Some people find it hard to understand senses like smell or sound. Autism is usually more obvious in children and young adults. Autism is one type of ASD, but adults can be diagnosed at any age with autism.

The diagnosis criteria for autism are the same regardless of whether you’re an adult or a child with autism.

  • Show uneven skills in communication, social interactions, and sensory processes.
  • Difficult to process social cues, which leads to inappropriate behaviors.
  • Difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling.
  • Difficulty planning ahead
  • Difficulty managing emotions and stress-related symptoms, like panic attacks.

Those on the spectrum do not lack feelings or empathy but experience emotions differently. It is also common for autism to co-exist with other medical or mental health disorders.

Can adults become autistic later in life?

Many people are confused about whether or not autism can develop later in life. They’ve heard stories about kids who grow up to be adults without the disease.

An autism diagnosis can happen at any age. It’s possible for a person to develop autism as an adult or to have autism and not realize it until adulthood.

Autism is a condition that affects people their whole life. It can change over time, depending on the person.

What causes autism in adults?

Adult autism is caused by autism spectrum disorder. This is a brain condition that affects communication. People with autism have repetitive behaviors that do not change.

They don’t like change and can focus on one thing for a long time. They also might have problems talking to people they don’t know.

Research shows autism is not the result of a lack of care or attention, but rather it may be caused by abnormalities in brain structure and function. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of brain problems.

ASD can cause people to have difficulties with things like learning and socializing. It is caused by an abnormality in the brain’s normal functioning.

ASD has many of the same features and has a broad impact on one’s ability to communicate, understand language, play, and relate to others.

All of the different ways that people can have autism is called Autism Spectrum Disorder. This term is used because some people have a more mild form while others have it tougher.

What are the 3 main symptoms of autism in adults?

There are different levels of autism. When someone has ASD, they will be diagnosed with level one, level two, or level three. The levels are from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  1. Level one autism

This level has mild autism symptoms. Someone with autism at this level will have a harder time interacting in social situations.

They might seem shy around people they don’t know and avoid eye contact. They might have a smaller circle of friends.

  1. Level two autism

This level has symptoms where more intense autism behaviors can be seen. Someone with autism at this level will usually avoid social situations.

They might have a hard time making eye contact or understanding humor. People with autism at this level often prefer doing things alone.

  1. Level three autism

This level generally contains the most severe symptoms and disabilities in an ASD diagnosis. Level three autism affects one in four persons worldwide.

People with this level of autism need a lot of help. They will need attention and support their whole lives. Some challenges may include:

  • Seizures
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Self-injurious behavior
  • Repetitive movements
  • Communication difficulties.

How autism affects adults is unique to each person. Some autistic adults are nonverbal, while others have very little trouble speaking their minds.

Many of them struggle with sensory sensitivities. They need support from caregivers or a family member in order to overcome these challenges.

One of autism’s most common traits is social difficulties, which is the reason autism has gained a reputation as being an “island”. Social problems are often one of autism’s most baffling symptoms.

Autism Symptoms in Adults at Home

Sometimes adult autism can resemble attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Adults can experience problems with spoken language, as well. Adults with autism may exhibit a variety of symptoms.

Some autism symptoms in adults at home include:

  • Decreased interaction with parents and friends
  • Unusual or repetitive behavior
  • Rigidity or difficulty changing tasks or activities
  • Difficulties transitioning from one activity to another
  • Poor language acquisition skills
  • Lack of interest in people, objects, or ideas

Autism Symptoms in Adults at Work

Individuals with autism confront a range of problems in the workplace. Many individuals link work with stress, productivity expectations, and social interactions. This might be overwhelming or aggravating.

These issues are sometimes exacerbated in persons with an autism spectrum disorder.

People with executive function difficulties may have a hard time managing their time. They may also have trouble organizing things.

Work can also be an inherently social setting. Rules and customs about how to act are not always straightforward to understand for people with ASD.

On the job site, there are many distractions. Workers can be distracted by noise or talks with coworkers. These problems call for the adoption of healthy coping methods and emergency plans.

They also mean that you have to work with your coworkers and bosses, which is good for the job environment.

Some symptoms to look for are:

  • No eye contact.
  • Robotic type communication with co-workers.
  • The items on your desk must not be moved.
  • You are good at math or coding, but you don’t do well in other areas.
  • You talk to your co-workers no different than you talk to a family member.
  • You find yourself making involuntary noises during inappropriate times.
  • Repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth when seated.
  • When communicating with your employer, you can’t tell if he or she is satisfied with your efforts.

Different Types of Autism in Adults

There are different types of autism in adults. Mild autism, borderline autism, and high-functioning autism (HFA).

Autistic spectrum disorders are related to autism and other similar conditions. The five most frequent terms used to identify this category are:

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS)
  • Rett’s Syndrome
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

While they all have certain traits in common, there are minor variations between them. For the longest time, autism has been known as the term.

To be diagnosed with autism, a person must have impairment in each of the three primary characteristics outlined above. This includes social deficits, communication problems, and repetitive or obsessive activities.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a variant of ASD. A person with Asperger’s Syndrome has difficulties with social interaction. They may have obsessive hobbies, like collecting things.

Someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome also has strong language skills. They may have trouble comprehending non-literal speech. For example, they might not be able to understand a metaphor in a conversation.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder is a variation of the PDD spectrum. PDD is when people have problems with the way they interact with others and also have difficulties using language.

Characteristics are comparable to those seen in autism, although they may not be as severe. This results in people who do not fully qualify for autism.

Rare diseases like Rett’s Syndrome and Child Disintegrative Disorder are very rare. These diseases have a specific pattern in when they can occur and in the case of Rett’s Syndrome, it is linked to a specific gene.

How do autistic adults behave?

Some adults with autism struggle to communicate clearly. They struggle to understand the perspective of someone else. They follow routines like how to dress or what time to eat.

If these routines change, it can be hard for them. They might also have trouble reading other people’s facial expressions and body language.

Some adults with autism don’t want things touching their face or other parts of their bodies. The autism spectrum disorder ranges from mild autism all the way up through high-functioning autism.

HFA is where individuals may show few signs at all and can function relatively normally.

How to deal with autism in adults?

Do you know someone who is on the autism spectrum? This could be someone in your family, a friend, a coworker, or a student. It might be hard to communicate with this person sometimes.

People on the autism spectrum behave differently. But experts have standards about how they talk to people who are autistic.

  1. Address them like an adult. Do not think that this person cannot understand what you are saying. He or she may have a hard time talking with words, but understands every word in the conversation.
  2. You should not use words that are too familiar or personal. Some people might find these words insulting, like “honey” or “cutie.” You can only say them to close friends and family members.
  3. Say exactly what you mean. When you talk with someone on the autism spectrum, be clear and say what you mean. Do not use slang or sarcasm; they may not understand it.
  4. Listen. This makes them feel cared for and supported. If you don’t understand what they’re saying, ask more questions to make sure you understand them.
  5. If you ask a question, wait for them to answer. If they don’t answer right away, it might be because they are still thinking about what you said.
  6. Give feedback that is honest and non-judgmental. Adults with autism may not know how to talk like they should. You can help them by giving them specific feedback about what they did wrong and how to fix it.
  7. Never speak of this person as if he or she were not in the room. In a group situation avoid referring to this individual as if he or she were not there. It’s easy to get caught up in it. Especially if other people are talking about him or her while he or she is present.

Mild Autism in Adults

Mild autistic symptoms often go unnoticed until adulthood. Many people with this type can function normally when they work or attend school.

The diagnosis for this kind of adult autism usually occurs after the age of 30 years old. This is because people have more responsibilities at home and work. They have to be able to do things on their own.

Mild autism symptoms include:

  • Avoiding eye contact with other people.
  • Preferring to be alone.
  • Poor social skills.

Borderline Autism in Adults

Borderline autism is a type of autism in adults which is milder than HFA. Adults with borderline autism are able to communicate effectively with people around them.

They may even go unnoticed when they interact socially because the symptoms are not quite that obvious. This does not mean though that it is less disabling compared to other forms of autism in adults.

People who have borderline autism often struggle with:

  • Cognitive functions involving memory tasks.
  • Trouble processing information
  • Difficulty with problem-solving abilities.
  • Struggle with decision-making skills
  • Problem with self care activities such as grooming and dressing appropriately.

High-Functioning Autism in Adults Checklist

Some people with autism can do well on most of their daily functioning. This is called high-functioning autism. But it is hard to diagnose this because these people usually do well in most areas of their life.

This autism in adults usually starts at a young age and can become apparent when the child is unable to speak or has difficulty using words.

Adults with this type of autism are often intelligent. Their intelligence level fluctuates depending on what kind of information they are exposed to.

This makes it challenging for them to adjust well socially if not given additional support from other people around them.

We have compiled a checklist for adults with high-functioning autism:

  • You have a difficult time seeing someone else’s viewpoint.
  • You have a hard time picking up on body language or facial cues.
  • You have a difficult time with eye contact and find it uncomfortable.
  • You may repeat the same phrase or expression over and over.
  • You have a hard time starting conversations. You may also have a hard time keeping the conversation going.
  • You have a hard time understanding people’s intentions. You may not understand jokes or sarcasm as an example.
  • You appear to be shy and lacking in social skills.
  • You may not seem to follow social norms and have a hard time fitting in.
  • You have very few friendships. You may also have a hard time keeping the few friendships you do have.
  • You may come across as rude.
  • You have trouble processing your thoughts and needs for others.
  • You may take things very literally, and lack imagination.
  • You may have a phobia of social interactions in general.
  • You may repeat behaviors again and again.
  • You may have obsessive interests.
  • You may have anxiety or depression.
  • You may have sensory issues to noise, textures, smells or tastes.
  • You may become anxious when your daily routine is changed.

How do adults cope with autism?

It is important for autism sufferers to find support from family members as autism affects the entire family unit. To avoid stress, they can distract themselves by playing online games with others who share similar symptoms.

It is important for people with autism to have social support. They should go places where they can talk. There are organizations that help the person with autism and their family, too.

Support groups such as local chapters of the Autism Society, Autism Speaks, and AutismUp provide help for people with autism. They provide emotional support from other people who have gone through similar experiences.

Is there any way to treat autism in adults?

The first thing in treating any disease is to contact a health professional who can make a correct autism diagnosis. Autism in adults is no exception.

Contact a psychiatrist or physician to provide medical advice. They can determine if the symptoms are autism spectrum disorder and what kind of autism you may have.

There is no treatment to cure ASD. Social skills training is one approach to treating adult autism. This autism treatment is to help people with communication problems.

They have trouble with social interactions. It helps them be able to communicate better. This kind of autism treatment is most effective when the patient attends autism support groups.

Other treatments include:

  • Changing diet
  • Medication
  • Alternative Medicine

Concluding Thoughts

The autism spectrum disorder affects people differently. People with ASD have difficulties in social interaction and communication. They also have difficulties with self-control and unusual responses to sensory stimuli.

Everyone is different with an autism spectrum disorder. You might not always understand them. This is why it helps to know what autism can do to adults. This way, they can get the right treatment.

As an adult, you may have been diagnosed with autism later on in life. You might not know where to start when it comes to understanding your symptoms or what lifestyle changes are best for you.

That’s why we created this resource guide for adults living with autism.

We hope that by reading this post, you will know more about autism and how it can affect people. We want to help you with any questions that you have. We have medical experts who can help. Contact us today!

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