We usually think of autism as being a childhood disorder because it is typically talked about in kids. Nowadays, children are screened for the signs of autism by their pediatricians during their 18- and 24-month well checks. This means that most cases of autism will have been identified by the time a child is two years of age. But, this screening procedure is fairly recent, so what if you are an adult who was told you had a learning disorder years ago or were called a “difficult” child before this protocol? Is it possible that you may have undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder (ASD), even if your symptoms are mild?
Autism In Adults
Back in the day, autism spectrum disorder was often misdiagnosed or mistaken for other conditions, like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Many adults who were labeled with behavioral concerns as kids might wonder now if they actually have ASD instead. Currently, it can be problematic to get an answer, however. There is no set protocol for screening adults for the disorder and it isn’t a common practice for doctors to watch for signs of autism in adults.
But, that will change as we learn more about ASD. According to a 2016 study by Murphy, et al, “Autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that has a potentially detrimental impact on adult functioning.” Today it is widely thought to be a disorder that comes from a combination of inherited genetic causes and environmental factors
Initially, autism was considered rare. Back in the 1960s, it was believed that only about 4 in 10,000 people had it. We now know, however, that ASD affects around one percent of adults and children.
This upsurge in cases is not due to an increase in the condition. Rather, it is because we have increased our awareness of it. We also have better diagnostic tools and classification systems in place now. For instance, in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was reclassified as part of ASD after it was decided there wasn’t enough evidence to show it was a separate condition from autism.
Adult Autism Checklist
At present, adult autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed through behavioral observations. There is no test or checklist to identify it, although one is in the process of being developed.
Still, there are symptoms that can indicate possible ASD. These behavioral signs of autism in adults include:
- Wanting to stick to a strict routine, schedule, or firm guidelines.
- Problems adjusting to change or emotional outbursts when something doesn’t happen according to plan.
- Increased chance of having an accompanying mood disorder, anxiety, or having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Difficulty with social interactions. It can be hard to make friends and a struggle to keep them.
- Issues with making inferences from verbal cues, making predictions, sequencing tasks, or problem solving.
- Problems interpreting other people’s points of view.
- Difficulty with communication skills, especially in group settings. Not good at making small talk.
- Rituals or repetitive behaviors.
- Specific and extreme interest in a particular topic or hobby (bordering on obsession). It may be difficult for the person to relate socially until a favored topic is introduced, then they can easily converse on it at length.
The problem with diagnosing adults with spectrum disorder comes from the fact that someone who has had it for a long time has gotten good at hiding their symptoms. Since there hasn’t been as much research into autism in adults, usually a doctor will rely on observation and either your childhood memories or those of a close family member to help with carrying out an in-depth assessment.
Despite these issues, it can be good to get a diagnosis. In this way, you might begin to understand your youthful difficulties a little better and you can learn coping skills to help you in the future.
Interventions For Adults With Autism
Clinicians treat autism differently in adults than they do in children. In part this is because other mental health conditions like anxiety or OCD may also be playing a role in the person’s life, and must be addressed. Also there can be other concerns to treat at the same time, such as job or relationship difficulties.
A formal diagnosis opens the doors to resources and autism-related services, like vocational training and job placement. These programs vary by state and may not be available everywhere in the country, however.
The 2016 study authors noted that, “service provision for adults with ASD is in its infancy. There is a lack of health services research for adults with ASD, including identification of comorbid health difficulties, rigorous treatment trials (pharmacological and psychological), development of new pharmacotherapies, investigation of transition and aging across the lifespan, and consideration of sex differences and the views of people with ASD.“
Although this is discouraging, today’s children with ASD are aging, so things will change to accommodate them and we’ll see more adult services in the coming years. Meanwhile, in addition to the programs that are currently in place, adults have access to professional treatment and things like books, online forums, and in-person support groups.
While ASD can’t be cured, it can be successfully managed. Behavioral interventions and learning targeted skills can reduce the challenges that those with autism may face throughout their lives.
Have Further Questions?
If you or someone you love have questions or would like further information about the assessment and diagnosis for adults with spectrum disorder, the mental health professionals at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida, can help. For more information, contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.
Murphy CM, Wilson CE, Robertson DM, et al. Autism spectrum disorder in adults: diagnosis, management, and health services development. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016;12:1669–1686. Published 2016 Jul 7. doi:10.2147/NDT.S65455