Identifying the Signs of Autism in Adults - Knowing what to Look For

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Late Bloomers: Adults and Autism

Autism does not just appear in adulthood. Individuals who receive a diagnosis of autism later in life were misdiagnosed or went undiagnosed as children. The signs and symptoms of autism are the same for both adults and children. Sadly, an opportunity was missed to provide intervention to persons struggling with a difficult, lifelong disorder.

An autism diagnosis for most families is devastating news. For a few others it can bring relief and some much needed answers. Hard to imagine an autism diagnosis bringing relief or answers isn’t it?

Imagine a child growing up before the late 1990s. He or she meets all the major milestones like crawling, rolling, walking and talking. But mom and dad know something is not quite right. Their child rarely interacts with them. He or she seems to like to be alone. The child doesn’t like to play with toys or other children (including siblings) and appears to have no interest in most childhood games or rituals. Then the child begins school. He or she has few, if any friends. The teacher reports that the child does well in most subjects, but seems to have little interest in things most children enjoy. The parents are worried, but they don’t know what more they can do. They just accept that their child is a little ‘strange’.

The truth is, their child probably has Asperger’s. Had they been given an Autism Checklist (I-CHAT or M-CHAT), they would have been able to compare their child’s behavior with the characteristics of autism. Unfortunately, most parents and doctors before the late 1990s knew very little about autism. It was a rare developmental disorder that occurred in 1 in 10,000 children. Few doctors or parents would suspect autism when a child showed developmental delays.

Autism Symptoms in Adults

A child who grew to adulthood and was able to function somewhat normally in school and life, probably suffers from the mildest form of autism spectrum disorder: Asperger’s. The symptoms of Asperger’s are the same for both adults and children.

The signs of autism in adults are:

  • normal to above average intelligence
  • lack of eye contact or facial expressions when speaking to others
  • little interest in others
  • appears to lack empathy
  • preoccupation with certain topics or objects
  • need for sameness or routines
  • inability to make or keep friends
  • trouble starting or holding a conversation (with turn taking)

In adults, lacking key social and communication skills can have a devastating effect on personal and professional life.

Here are a few examples of how the symptoms might look in an adult:

  1. Having normal to high intelligence - An Asperger’s adult is capable of reading, writing, and speaking on a par with their peers. They can probably get and keep a job. Unfortunately, they will probably experience difficulty when interacting and communicating with co-workers which may lead to problems on the job.

  2. Lack of eye contact or facial expression - Failing to look at a person during a conversation can be misconstrued as disinterest or boredom. Some Aspies say that others mistake their inability to make eye contact as rudeness or disrespect.

  3. Appear to lack empathy - Not showing emotion when a person is upset or distressed can cause an Aspie to appear unsympathetic. Some Asperger’s individuals have reported losing friends or having relationship difficulties because they failed to react appropriately when faced with an emotional issue or situation (i.e., grief, anger).

  1. The need for sameness or routine - Because they don’t react well to change or will refuse to make changes to their routine, some Aspies have created problems for themselves at work or in school.

  2. Preoccupation with a particular subject or topic- Talking incessantly about one thing to the exclusion of all others will be perceived as extremely strange or annoying by most people. Some Aspies report they are aware they engage in this behavior, but they fail to stop it or learn how to correctly hold a conversation with others.

  3. The inability to keep or make friends - Some Aspies suffer from depression as adults because they want to build relationships with others, but are unsuccessful. Their disability isolates them from others and can lead to serious depression if not dealt with appropriately.

Many Asperger’s individuals are aware that they behave in unusual ways. For an undiagnosed Asperger’s adult, these behaviors were probably considered ‘personality quirks’. These so-called quirks kept them socially isolated until they received their diagnosis as an adult and were then able to receive the appropriate help, support, guidance and treatment.


Autism Symptoms,, May 19, 2008

Schoenstadt, Arthur M.D. Autism in Adults, February 5, 2009

Dryden-Edwards, Roxanne M.D. Autism and Communication,, 1996-2011