What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
According to the Center for Disease Control, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. There are likely many different causes of ASD. One known cause is a genetic condition like Fragile X Syndrome or Tuberous Sclerosis. The American Psychiatric Association defines ASD as ” a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior. “
Autism is one of many different developmental disorders. It typically begins before the age of three and is a lifelong condition. Some children with ASD display symptoms very early in life while other children don’t behave differently until closer to age two or three. In many cases, children hit developmental milestones and then stop gaining new skills or lose skills they had once mastered. This includes common signs like the presence of communication difficulties or repetitive behavior.
It can be challenging to diagnose ASD. Unlike other conditions, there’s no medical exam or blood test that can detect ASD. A formal diagnosis can be made by a healthcare professional based on the child’s behavior and development. Parents or other caregivers may seek a diagnostic assessment. Early diagnosis is key. Early intervention can help children get the early support they need.
A medical professional may be consulted as children grow into adolescents and young adults. A child with ASD may also have challenges like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression, which occur more often in people with autism.
Sometimes, in mild cases, a diagnosis is never made or isn’t needed. Some adults with Asperger’s Syndrome, or high functioning autism, may not receive a formal diagnosis since they didn’t require support. An adult who struggles socially and is diagnosed with a mental health condition or intellectual disability may wonder if they have really have autism.
Adults with mild signs of autism may self-administer an ASD questionnaire like the Autism Spectrum Quotient to gain some insights. While these tests are not as reliable as a full professional evaluation, they can help adults understand their own behavior.
What are the Characteristics of Autism in Adults
Autism is characterized by numerous traits and symptoms, varying from one person to the next. Just like no single person is exactly the same to another, no person with autism is the same. That is why autism is considered a spectrum disorder. When looking at a rainbow, there is an array, or spectrum, of colors, and each color has countless shades. This is also true of the autism spectrum. Think of the colors and shades as the particular, one-of-a-kind characteristics of each individual with autism spectrum disorder.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder face a unique set of challenges in their daily lives. The challenges can alter their perception of the world and people around them in ways that others do not always understand. Some autistic adults may exhibit symptoms that resemble attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
An autism diagnosis can cause confusion and frustration on both ends, but knowledge is power. Understanding the signs of autism and how autism spectrum disorder impacts a person’s life can help both parties improve their interactions and communication. While autistic personality traits and symptoms can differ from one person with autism to another, there are some general characteristics of autism in adults.
Here are five general autistic traits in adults with autism spectrum disorder.
- A Preference for Alternate Forms of Communication
- A Tendency Toward Following an Established Routine
- A Difficult Time With Social Interactions
- A Struggle With Social Imagination
- An Intense Connection With Specific Objects
1. A Preference for Alternate Forms of Communication
Autistic people prefer to communicate in ways that best make sense to them. These are not always the same ways an individual without autism does. They may not always understand the verbal and non-verbal forms of communication others tend to use. They may not pick up on all the other nuances that come with communication. This is one of the most common autistic characteristics in adults.
People with autism spectrum disorders tend to have difficulty comprehending things like:
- facial expressions
- hand gestures
These traits of autism in adults can cause misunderstandings depending on the level of the person’s autism. An autistic person might choose to use things like sign language or visuals to communicate. These methods are very simple and straightforward. Taking the time to explain things clearly and understand their preferred way of speaking can bridge the communication gap.
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) describes the ways people communicate without, or in addition to, speech. Those with autism (and without) can benefit from using AAC methods such as specific communication devices.
Speech Pathology Graduate Programs has a great article, which lists their top 10 recommended AAC devices such as the:
- Pocket Go-Talk 5-Level Communication Device- The Pocket GoTalk has 25 different messages with five easy to use buttons and five unique levels. This portable device is great to use out on the playground or at work.
- MegaBee Assisted Communication and Writing Tablet- This device is a great option for users with little or no speech. It provides communication support through eye pointing and blinking.
Support services like speech therapy can work wonders with autistic adults.
ASD experts at the May Institute give tips for talking to adults on the autism spectrum.
- Address him or her as you would any other adult, not a child.
- Avoid using words or phrases that are too familiar or personal.
- Say what you mean.
- Take time to listen.
- If you ask a question, wait for a response.
- Provide meaningful feedback.
- Don’t speak as if the person is not in the room.
These are wonderful tips for those who may be interacting and communicating with autistic adults.
2. A Tendency Toward Following an Established Routine
Another of the most common autism traits in adults relates to a desire to follow an established routine. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder typically prefer structure, and they tend to follow the same routines day in and day out.
When schedules are altered or disturbed in any way, it can often lead to much greater discomfort than it would for someone who does not live with autism spectrum disorder.
When interacting with autistic people, it is important to remember that structure equals comfort for them. Helping them keep their schedules intact will go a long way in earning their trust, as well as being reliable and consistent.
Adults with ASD may have:
- a structured sleep/wake routine
- household chore schedule
- daily living routine
- a structured routine when out in the community
Here’s an example of this autistic behaviour in adults. When driving to run errands, they may only drive on certain roads, go to only specific stores, and once in the store, have a very planned route they take to gather their items. If something was to deter them from doing something as planned, it tends to be difficult, especially for those with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.
Therapy and practice can help autistic people deviate from schedules and handle transitions. Adults with autism can manage daily schedules and develop strategies using:
- backup plans
3. A Difficult Time With Social Interactions
People with autism spectrum disorder typically have trouble understanding concepts that are not black and white. They do not live in gray areas and are more objective and less subjective. Because of this, feelings, emotions, and social situations can be difficult for autistic adults to manage.
It is not unusual for an adult with autism to do things that others may construe as rude or inconsiderate even though there is no negative intention. Many of these autism signs are related to body language. These signs of autism can include:
- disregarding others’ personal space
- avoiding interaction with people
- avoiding eye contact
- not asking others for or giving advice or comfort.
An autistic person may not fully understand the emotions of the people around them. They can have a hard time understanding messages sent through facial expressions, eye contact, and body language.
With that being said, do not misunderstand their difficulties in social situations as them having a negative view of social interactions. They simply have trouble reading social cues. Most autistic people (just like most people in general) enjoy interacting with others and being involved in social activities. They also can feel the pains of social isolation and long to make friends. This can impact their mental health.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders can work on social and communication skills with:
- their therapist
- a mentor
- family members
- in small groups with others
Role-playing and repetition of skills can be beneficial to practice scenarios one might encounter in a social situation. Treatment usually focuses on managing autism symptoms. These support services can help modify some autistic behaviors in adults so the individual can get more enjoyment out of social activities.
Some autistic behavior in adults may require additional assistance. Some skills an adult with autism might need more assistance with include:
- Making and keeping friends
- Giving and receiving introductions
- Playing games
- Being invited to join in on something
- Asking someone a question
- Correctly interpreting body language
- Giving someone a compliment
- Holding a conversation with one or more people
Allowing autistic person opportunities to engage with others often and practice social skills is highly recommended and will greatly benefit them going forward.
Being someone who is not autistic and on the other end of social interaction, it is best to:
- be patient
- help guide the conversation as needed
- model appropriate communication and interaction styles
4. A Struggle With Social Imagination
Social imagination refers to the ability to imagine what another person or persons may be:
Being able to guess reasonably accurately what another person is thinking or feeling given the present context or situation is an important part of social connectedness and the ability to relate to others.
Autism can often lead to a lack of social imagination that makes it difficult for those with the condition to understand the behavior and intentions of those around them. Those on the spectrum might have trouble relating to others or picking up on social cues. They may find it hard to imagine anything that does not fall within the boundaries of their set parameters.
Unfortunately, this symptom of autism is often perceived as a lack of creativity. It would be wrong to assume this since autistic people are typically exceptionally creative.
Due to their trouble relating to others, autistic people often find it hard to follow social rules or interpret others’:
This challenge impacts their ability to feel and show empathy. This is why individuals with autism can sometimes be perceived as aloof.
Just like with developing social skills, social imagination skills can be improved upon through:
- interpretive play
- experiential learning
The more practice, the better. It’s important to note that current treatment for ASD is designed to reduce symptoms that interfere with activities of daily living and an individual’s quality of life. Each individual has unique challenges and strengths. Each treatment plan is unique to the individual.
5. An Intense Connection With Specific Objects
Another of the most common traits of autism is an intense connection with specific objects. People with autism tend to develop attachments with certain objects, places, or activities in their lives. These can range from toys or blankets from their childhood to seemingly random things they found later in life. The connection can be building model trains or playing putt-putt golf.
Whatever the attraction is, it can be rather strong and seem more intense than a regular hobby or interest; it can border on an obsession at times. This fascination with objects, places, or activities can lead to an interest in collecting items and categorizing them in a way that works for them.
The DSM-5 describes this symptom as “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.” Diagnostic criteria includes:
- Stereotyped or repetitive speech– People with autism may reverse pronouns, refer to themselves by their own name, or use repetitive vocalizations
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements– Repetitive behaviors might include clapping, rocking, finger flicking, or humming. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder might display unusual facial grimacing or abnormalities of posture.
- Stereotyped or repetitive use of objects– Autistic people might line up items, engage in repetitive behaviors by opening and closing doors or turning on and off lights.
According to an article on AutisticAspergers.com, autistic people may develop obsessions for several reasons, These signs of autism include:
- Obsessions may provide structure, order, and predictability, and help people cope with the uncertainties of daily life
- People who find social interaction difficult might use their special interests as a way to start conversations and feel more self-assured in social situations
- Obsessions may help people to relax and feel happy
- People can get a lot of enjoyment from learning about a particular subject or gathering together items of interest.
Autism greatly affects the mental health of adults around the world with the condition as well as those closest to them. By understanding the autism characteristics in adults and how the condition presents, along with the associated challenges of being on the spectrum, those who don’t have autism can learn to interact more effectively and empathetically with those who do have autism.
Here are two thought-provoking quotes from an educational article in Behavioral Scientist to leave you with:
We’re now understanding what people on the autism spectrum have rather than what they lack, and what they have is social creativity and an unconventional social style.
Instead of viewing people with ASD as “socially awkward” individuals who need to be “fixed,” we should instead conceptualize them as socially creative. They may not do things the “right” way, but they do them their way.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University