While autism is usually diagnosed in childhood, some people only receive a diagnosis much later.
Autism is a developmental disability that impacts the way that people interact and communicate with others throughout their lifetimes. Experts are not sure what causes the condition, but people may have a genetic predisposition towards autism, which sometimes runs in families. Autism is also more common among people who have sensory processing disorders, which makes people abnormally sensitive to things that affect any of their five senses, such as loud noises.
Autism was once believed to be rare, but it is now thought to affect about one in 160 children worldwide.
Males are more likely to be diagnosed than females, although experts aren’t sure why. Some theorise that females may be less likely to inherit the condition, while others hold that autism presents differently in females, leading to underdiagnosis.
Doctors use the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ (ASD) to encompass everyone who’s been diagnosed. At one end of the spectrum, symptoms are so severe that people who don’t get the right support are unable to communicate, and require lifelong assistance. At the other end of the spectrum, people have such subtle symptoms that they may function like anyone else (perhaps with some odd habits), and their autism may go undetected well into adulthood.
Here are some signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Other peoples’ feelings baffle you. You have a collection of figurines on your desk that must be in the same order at all times. These, and other common manifestations of ASD, may be apparent in adults at home:
- Your family members lovingly refer to you as the “eccentric professor” of the family, even though you don’t work in academia.
- You’ve always wanted a best friend, but never found one.
- You often invent your own words and expressions to describe things.
- Even when you’re in a quiet place, like the library, you find yourself making involuntary noises like clearing your throat over and over.
- You follow the same schedule every day of the week, and don’t like unexpected events.
- Expressions like, “Curiosity killed the cat” or “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” are confusing to you.
- You are always bumping into things and tripping over your own feet.
- In your leisure time, you prefer to play individual games and sports, like golf, where everyone works for themselves instead of working toward a common goal on a team.
Symptoms of ASD vary greatly from person to person based on the severity of the condition. These or similar manifestations of ASD may be apparent at work:
- When you’re having a conversation with your boss, you prefer to look at the wall, her shoes, or anywhere but directly into her eyes.
- Your co-workers say that you speak like a robot.
- Each item on your desk has a special place, and you don’t like when the cleaning company rearranges it to dust.
- You are really good at math, or software coding, but struggle to succeed in other areas.
- You talk to your co-workers the same way you talk with your family and friends.
- During meetings, you find yourself making involuntary noises, like clearing your throat over and over.
- When talking with your boss, you have difficulty telling if he is happy with your performance or mad at you.
People with autism may follow strict routines and focus on their own narrow interests. But this is not true for everyone with the condition.
Although everyone with autism experiences the condition differently, people may have certain traits in common. Many, for example, have trouble making decisions, are confused by facial expressions, and have trouble navigating social situations.
Autism awareness has become more widespread this century, and greater numbers of children with subtle symptoms are now diagnosed at young ages. But decades ago, doctors rarely diagnosed people towards the subtler end of the spectrum.
Those who were diagnosed as adults often blended into society during childhood.
Imitating the behaviour of their peers is often effective, says Dr Bojan Mirkovic, a psychiatrist who studies Asperger’s syndrome. But, he adds, “It involves a very large cognitive effort that may become exhausting and lead to depression.” Asperger’s is an autism condition characterised by the desire to focus conversations on specific intellectual interests. Current practice is to phase out the diagnosis of Asperger’s in favour of autism spectrum disorder.
Many people graduate from university, have meaningful careers, get married and become parents before learning, in middle age or beyond, that they’re on the autism spectrum.
Although many autistic people find jobs that suit them, the condition is associated with underemployment. Some people take positions beneath their abilities because they can’t handle the stress of too much responsibility or because depression, anxiety or autism-related disabilities may prove too challenging.
Inability to connect meaningfully with colleagues or go with the flow may limit people’s upward mobility or earning potential, even if they’re successful professors or engineers. A 2017 British survey of 2471 people, published in the journal Molecular Autism, found that autistic traits were negatively related to income.
Researchers have also found that autistic adults are less empathetic, which may limit their success in social or professional situations. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders studied 173 adults who were sent for autism assessments. It found that those who received an autism diagnosis tended to have lower scores on a questionnaire that measured how well someone understands others’ feelings.
Research has demonstrated that people with autism also have difficulties with understanding what one person thinks about another person’s thoughts, understanding non-literal expressions and the meanings of indirect remarks or sarcasm.
Empathy is a core skill needed for social interactions; without it, people may have trouble making friends or dating. Street is glad to have met his wife of 50 years through a friend.
Some adults are diagnosed after seeing a mental-health professional. Others seek diagnoses because they recognise autistic qualities in themselves after learning about the condition.
The news comes as a relief for many adults, who suddenly understand why they’ve always felt differently than others.
When children are diagnosed with autism, they may receive social support to help them fit into society more readily. Similar services may not always be available to help newly diagnosed adults.
Some people are set in their ways, content with the lives that they have.
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