Are you autistic? Getting diagnosed as a teen or adult

Signs of autism in teens and adults include difficulties with social interactions and relationships, communication problems and preoccupation with certain topics.

About 1.5 million people in the United States have autism, according to Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism. This number has increased significantly in the past couple of decades, likely due to greater knowledge about the disorder.

Even with that greater knowledge, the number is only an estimate and it becomes murkier when discussing people other than kids.

The number of adults living with autism today is even less certain according to AFFA. “Some sources cite that roughly 80 percent of those individuals with autism are under the age of 22.”

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a group of disorders related to brain development. Autism is most often characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

You may have recognized those behaviors in yourself or a loved one but are hesitant to seek a diagnosis because of the focus on children. However, a diagnosis can help with understanding the behaviors and living a full life life in spite of the challenges they present.

Signs of autism

Signs of autism in teens and adults include difficulties with social interactions and relationships, communication problems and preoccupation with certain topics, according to WebMD.

Teenagers may continue to gain skills but have more difficulty with puberty than others their age. Adults may function well on their own or need help.

“Some adults with autism need a lot of assistance, especially those with low intelligence who are unable to speak,” WebMD says. “At the other end of the spectrum, adults with high-functioning autism are often successful in their professions and able to live independently, although they typically continue to have some difficulties relating to other people.”

Getting diagnosed

The prevalence of autism diagnoses has increased for all ages. In fact, some people have been diagnosed as late as their 60s, according to Autism NOW. A diagnosis can help people understand a facet of themselves.

“Often these adults are mildly autistic, and in years before diagnoses of mild autism were common, they were assumed to be eccentric or quirky. In cases where their disability was more obvious, many were misdiagnosed with other conditions, most commonly with attention deficit, intellectual disabilities, or mental illnesses as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder [and] schizophrenia.”

Because the questions and activities used to diagnose children were unsuitable for an older crowd, researchers at Cardiff University created the Adult Repetitive Behaviours Questionnaire so adults could answer questions for themselves (as opposed to parents answering questions about children) and clinicians could give an accurate diagnosis.

The questionnaire asks patients 20 questions, including:

  • Do you like to arrange items in rows or patterns?
  • Do you collect or hoard items of any sort?
  • Do you insist that aspects of daily routine must remain the same?
  • Do you insist on wearing the same clothes or refuse to wear new clothes?

“By itself, the test cannot diagnose autism,” according to Autism Speaks. “Repetitive and restricted behaviors are just one core symptom of autism – alongside social and communication challenges and, often, sensory issues. ... Nonetheless, the new test represents an important advance.”

Living with autism

Whether they’re preparing to transition into adulthood or already living an independent life, autism presents challenges and benefits to those it affects.

“Each individual with autism is different and transitioning may be easier or more difficult depending on the person,” according to the Autism Science Foundation. “With support and careful planning however, many individuals with autism can successfully transition into adulthood and lead fulfilling lives.”

Many resources are available to help people navigate autism. Additionally, with the continued focus on research, an understanding of autism has emerged and will continue to grow.

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