Public Health

Autism in Adults: Neurodiversity is for Life

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When we hear about autism, many of us think of it as a childhood condition that comes with tendencies that kids eventually “outgrow.” But the truth is, the neurology we’re born with stays with us for life. If a child has autism, they will have it as an adult as well. And while the behaviors that are considered atypical in people with autism can sometimes go unnoticed by others, that doesn’t mean struggles aren’t still there.

At AdventHealth, we believe that every individual is infinitely valuable — created with a special purpose and endless potential to fulfill it. To honor World Autism Day, we’re celebrating the gifts and emphasizing the plight of neurodivergent adults, including a focus on symptoms, differences between genders, how to get diagnosed with autism as an adult and treatment options.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder marked by challenges with social interaction and communication, elevated sensitivity to sensory stimuli and repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. Autism is classified as a spectrum disorder because it differs in severity and presents uniquely in each person.

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Autism in Adults?

It’s not uncommon for adults who went undiagnosed with autism as children to wonder why they feel “different” from other people as they grow up. There might be an underlying sense of having trouble fitting in, struggling to communicate, extra sensitivity to sensory stimuli, social anxiety and more. There could also be a history of special talents that are unusual in others. In hindsight, both the struggles and the gifts can often be tracked back to their childhood.

If any of the above signs sound familiar, along with the following, you might consider getting an evaluation for autism:

Common symptoms of autism in adults include:

  • Anxiousness about social situations
  • Aversion to changes in your routine
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Difficulty communicating thoughts and feelings
  • Difficulty making and keeping friends
  • Hard to understand social cues and “rules”
  • Having tremendous empathy but trouble showing it
  • Literal thinking and struggling to understand sarcasm
  • Monotone speaking voice
  • Noticing small details and sensory information that others don’t
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Sensory issues
  • Special interest in specific topics or hobbies
  • Trouble keeping up a conversation
  • Trouble with executive functioning

How Does Autism Differ in Males and Females?

Until recently, autism was thought of as a condition that mostly affects boys and men. The truth is, autism likely impacts girls and women at similar rates, but females are more apt to mask their symptoms to better fit in with their peers.

While a young boy might be more likely to act out their frustrations through behaviors that we associate with autism (such as flapping their hands or rocking their bodies), a girl with autism can feel just as bothered by her symptoms but quietly hide her feelings. That said, females are more likely to be underdiagnosed, or misdiagnosed with something else, because it’s harder to tell if they have autism; it’s common for women to discover they have autism later in life.

Autistic women might:

  • Appear to cope better socially, but struggle inside
  • Be shy, quiet and hide their feelings
  • Hide signs of autism to fit in by masking
  • Show fewer signs of repetitive behaviors

It’s also possible that any repetitive behaviors or special interests in women with autism aren’t seen as unusual due to ingrained social gender biases. For example, a woman with autism who feels she must carefully organize her closet or is exceedingly fascinated with art history might be perceived as “neurotypical.”

How Do You Get Diagnosed with Autism as an Adult?

Some adults finally recognize their own autism symptoms if they have a child diagnosed with it. Experts are yet to decide on a standard set of criteria to diagnose adults who believe they have autism. But it’s possible for doctors to apply criteria used to diagnose autism in children — such as experiencing problems with social communication, demonstrating restricted, repetitive behaviors, and any distressing sensory issues — to help you get a diagnosis.

To diagnose autism as an adult, a health care professional will likely talk to you about your interests, feelings and childhood. They might also want to talk to family members. This can be helpful if symptoms can be tracked to your childhood for a deeper understanding of your history and current situation.

What Are Treatments for Adults with Autism?

Adults with autism can find certain types of treatment to be beneficial. Treatments are not meant as a cure, but coping strategies to help you live a meaningful life with autism by addressing any issues with anxiety, rigid thinking, routines or depression.

Therapy

A therapist can offer personalized sessions that help address specific issues, like trouble communicating your feelings in a relationship or frustrations in the workplace. Your therapist can also assess any life stressors and help you develop adaptive solutions, such as reframing your thoughts and building more effective communication skills.

Vocational rehabilitation

Vocational rehabilitation is meant to help address workplace-related struggles. Autistic adults might have specific challenges, such as discomfort with sensory stimuli, that make working in a traditional setting difficult.

Vocational rehabilitation can help you find a job that accommodates and aligns with your strengths and interests — giving you the opportunity to live to your fullest potential and enjoy a meaningful career.

Medicine

It’s common for people with autism to experience other related conditions such as anxiety, depression and tic disorders like Tourette syndrome. Medicine can be used to ease the symptoms associated with comorbid conditions, such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Talk to your health care provider about what would be a best fit for you.

Embrace Neurodiversity

There is no one right way of thinking, living and behaving. By embracing differences, focusing on strengths and fostering inclusion, we can help people on the autism spectrum focus on their gifts and navigate the world with confidence and joy.

Our skilled, compassionate AdventHealth providers can help you flourish physically, emotionally and spiritually with a personalized care plan that honors who you are.

Visit us here to learn more. You deserve to feel whole.

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