Am I Autistic And How Would I Know?
What Is Autism?
In recent generations there has been a growing prevalence of children and adults being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or autism. Autism is a disorder that causes deficiencies in cognitive processes, development, and socialization skills. Autism has been identified as a cognitive disorder within the last few decades, which makes it difficult to understand its rising prevalence and diagnose adults.
Because it is a relatively new disorder, it is not yet clear why people develop autism or the causes and risk factors for the disorder. These components make a diagnosis of autism in adults tricky, but mental health professionals have found key features and symptoms that indicate undiagnosed autism in adults. Have you ever asked yourself the question 'am I autistic?'. To understand autism in adults, it is important to first understand how autism is presented in children.
Childhood Symptoms of Autism
Since the clinical focus and diagnostic criteria is geared toward toddlers and children who are showing signs of autism, it can sometimes be difficult to identify and understand symptoms of autism in adults. An adult who is suspected of having autism can benefit from understanding childhood symptoms of autism and relate them to his or her own childhood experiences. People typically begin to exhibit symptoms between ages 1 and 3. During this period, a child will present with the following symptoms:
- Flat affect or poor expression of emotions
- Limited understanding of emotional expression or social cues
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Disinterest in socializing and making friends
- Failure to develop friendships or close bonds with others
- Little to no verbal communication skills
- Difficulty understanding concepts
- Difficulty in problem solving
- Fascination and fixation on inanimate objects (trains, cars, tools, etc.)
- Failure or difficulty in learning verbal communication or vocabulary skills
- Aggressive behavior
- Angry outbursts
- Uncontrollable tantrums
- Unpredictable mood swings
- Repetitive behaviors like rocking, clapping, tapping, etc.
How Is Autism Diagnosed In Adults?
Since the diagnostic criterion and screening instruments are geared toward childhood issues, it can be difficult to assess adults for autism spectrum disorder. Autism in children is diagnosed after a child shows symptoms that are reported by parents, teachers, and caretakers. If a child is presumed to be on the Autism Spectrum he or she is examined by a mental health professional.
The child will be assessed using reports from family members, teachers and caretakers, and screening instruments like Checklist of Autism in Toddlers, Screening Tool for Autism in Two-Year-Olds, the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, and the Social Communication Questionnaire. Results from both reports and screening assessments will determine whether a child is on the autism spectrum.
At this time there is limited diagnostic resources for adults who are believed to be on the autism spectrum. If a mental health professional (MHP) suspects that an adult is suffering from undiagnosed autism, he or she will administer a series of screenings and assessments to help indicate whether a diagnosis of autism is appropriate. The following are diagnostic tools available to professionals to help determine if autism is an appropriate diagnosis in adults:
The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition
The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) is a standardized assessment to screen for autism. The assessment assesses functional areas like communication skills, social interaction skills, and behavioral patterns that are indicative of autism. For adults, the ADOS is administered via conversational interviewing, in which the MHP performing the assessment will ask questions based on Module 4, which assesses verbal and conversational abilities, along with social communication skills.
Self-Report Assessment and Collection of Childhood History
While the ADOS is an effective aid in determining whether a person is on the autism spectrum, it is primarily geared toward children, which often leaves the MHP lacking sufficient evidence for an autism diagnosis. To compensate for the limited information that can be collected from the ADOS, the MHP will interview the patient. He or she may also interview the patient's parents or caretakers for a recounting of the childhood issues from an adult point of view. In this interview the MHP will ask for a detailed childhood history. The following points will be addressed:
Autism causes developmental and cognitive issues, like struggles with problem solving, decision-making, and stress management. Adults with autism will have trouble with coping with stress associated with changes in schedules and understanding complex or philosophical concepts.
It is common for adults with autism to know very specific, in depth details about things that interest them. For example, if a patient with autism is interested in history, they will be especially intrigued by specific historic events, will be able to recall specific details like dates, first and last names, and locations of those events.
An adult with autism will recall struggling with school, especially if they attended school before the 1990's or 2000's. This is due to the limited resources available to cater to the unique needs of autistic students.
Behavioral Issues During Childhood
An adult with autism will recall struggling with behavioral issues. Children with autism act out and have unpredictable outbursts, tantrums, and mood swings. Certain things would have triggered the behavioral outbursts, like having a schedule disrupted, struggling with communicating needs, and being pushed to learn speech and social skills.
Behavioral issues, especially with regard to socializing and communication, will follow into adulthood. While adults may have a better understanding and control over their behavior, such upsetting things as disorganization, a disrupted routine, or difficulty understanding social and relationship issues will often trigger them.
Adults with autism may struggle with maintaining day-to-day responsibilities such as hygiene, cooking, cleaning, chores and maintaining employment. The severity of the struggles will depend on how severely their individual case ranks on the autism spectrum.
Socialization Skills and Relationship Issues
Autism causes limited socialization skills. Adults with autism will struggle with social situations and building relationships because they have a limited ability to empathize and communicate. Adults with autism typically have a basic understanding of emotions and often do not understand or recognize emotional cues. They will not fully understand how to respond to different displays of emotions, and may respond in a systematic matter, such as "She is smiling, that means she is happy. I will smile too because that means I am also happy".
How Can I Tell If I Have Autism?
It is difficult to determine whether an adult may have autism because the research and literature available to the public about autism spectrum disorder is geared toward children. Fortunately, the information available to the public about adult autism is slowly growing as more adults are discovered to be suffering from the disorder.
If you feel you suffer from undiagnosed autism, review the following list of symptoms and signs. If these symptoms resonate with you, reach out to a medical or mental health professional who will be able to help you learn more about the disorder and how it affects you.
Symptoms and Signs of Undiagnosed Adult Autism
Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviors
An adult with autism may exhibit compulsive behaviors like lining up objects, preoccupation with patterns, and obsession with organization, tradition, and rituals.
He or she will be meticulously structured and organized. An event that causes their belongings, routine, or schedule is disrupted from the organization system will cause great distress to the affected person.
An adult with undiagnosed autism will stick to a strict daily routine. Any deviation from the routine will cause irritability, and sometimes acts of rage and self-harm in effort to cope with the stress of the disruption.
An adult with autism may develop behavioral tics that seem to worsen when put under stress. These behaviors can be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome, but are symptomatic of autism if accompanied by other autistic symptoms.
Restricted Understanding and Display of Emotions and Empathy
An adult with autism will struggle with displaying emotions. The ability to either verbally or nonverbally express emotions will be difficult for the affected person, as well as understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. These issues can appear to be insensitive and apathetic to those close to the affected person, and may cause conflict in interpersonal relationships.
An adult with autism will try to mirror emotions to others in effort to follow the social cues they learned growing up. Considering an adult with undiagnosed autism never had his or her social, communicative and emotional issues addressed, he or she may not understand how to appropriately express or describe even the most basic of emotions.
Difficulty with Socializing and Communicating
Adults with autism also have the tendency to be blunt, and verbalize their thoughts and feelings in a manner that may be inappropriate or insensitive for the situation.
When working with or developing a relationship with others an adult with autism will use direct terms in conversation and will become confused when indirect dialog, unclear questions and comments, or unorganized instructions and directions. This will cause stress and frustration for the affected person, which may result in aggressive words or behavior toward the people around him or her.