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 each individual with autism has.
Adults with autism face a unique set of challenges in their daily lives. The various effects of the condition can alter their perception of the world and people around them in ways that others do not always understand. This can lead to confusion and frustration on both ends, but knowledge really is power. Understanding how autism impacts a person’s life can help both parties improve their interactions and communication. While traits and symptoms can differ from one person with autism to another, there are some general characteristics that tend to apply.
Here are five general characteristics of adults with autism.
- A Preference for Alternate Forms of Communication
- A Tendency Toward Following an Established Routine
- A Difficult Time With Social Interaction
- A Struggle With Social Imagination
- An Intense Connection With Specific Objects
1. A Preference for Alternate Forms of Communication
Individuals with autism prefer to communicate in ways that best make sense to them, which 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, along with all the other nuances that come with communication. People with autism tend to have difficulty comprehending things like euphemisms, facial expressions, and hand gestures. This can cause misunderstandings depending on the level of the person’s autism. Others on the spectrum choose to use things like sign language and the use of visuals to communicate because it is 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 and The MegaBee Assisted Communication and Writing Tablet.
Speech therapy can work wonders with individuals with autism.
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 someone with autism.
2. A Tendency Toward Following an Established Routine
Individuals with autism 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. When interacting with adults with autism, 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 autism may have a structured sleep/wake routine, household chores, and daily living routine, and a structured routine when out in the community. For example, 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 on the spectrum.
Being able to successfully deviate from schedules and effectively handle transitions is something that can be improved upon with therapy and practice. Adults with autism benefit from visuals, reminders, and backup plans regarding managing daily schedules.
3. A Difficult Time With Social Interactions
People with autism 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 interaction can be difficult for them to manage. It is not unusual for an adult with autism to do things that others may construe as rude, inconsiderate, or distant when there is actually no negative intention. These things can include not respecting others’ personal space, avoiding interaction with people, and not asking others for or giving advice or comfort.
With that being said, do not misunderstand their difficulties with social interaction as them having a negative view of social interaction. Most adults with autism (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.
Adults on the spectrum can work on social and communication skills with their therapist, with a mentor, or in small groups with others. Role-playing and repetition of skills can be beneficial to practice scenarios one might encounter in a social situation.
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
- Giving someone a compliment
- Holding a conversation with one or more people
Allowing adults with autism 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, and 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 feeling, thinking or experiencing. 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 also 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 children and adults with autism are typically exceptionally creative.
Due to their difficulty in this area, adults with autism often find it hard to follow social rules and interpret others’ thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, which enables them 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 role-playing, interpretive play, and experiential learning. The more practice, the better.
5. 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.”
According to an article in Autistic Aspergers, people with autism may develop obsessions for several reasons, including:
- 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 lives of adults around the world with the condition as well as those closest to them. By understanding the symptoms 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
Updated April 2021