When we hear the word “autism” the first thing that comes to mind are children with difficulties in socializing, communicating with others and also some type of intellectual disability.
This description is not generalizable at all, firstly because autism spectrum disorders are associated with different degrees of affectation, with highly functional autistic people and, secondly, because autism is not only a matter of children, it is also presented by adults.
Next, we are going to address the issue of autism in adults, explaining why there are cases in which ASD is diagnosed in adulthood, what problems and explanations may be behind it, and the importance of researching this disorder in adult life.
How is autism expressed in adults?
In popular culture, you have a pretty bad idea of what autism is and how it is diagnosed. Many people imagine autism as people who have serious problems to socialize, are unable to communicate, are very sensitive to noise and have a severe intellectual disability. Believing that this definition accurately describes the majority of autistics, many people believe that autism is something that cannot go unnoticed in childhood.
Although it is true that some autistic people can fulfil the description that we have just mentioned, we must not ignore that autism refers to a whole spectrum of disorders, not to a specific way of being. People with autism can be very diverse, have very different degrees of affectation and their ability to function on a day-to-day basis is not the same in all of them.
Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD are defined as chronic neurological dysfunctions with a strong genetic basis that, from an early age, give rise to problems of social interaction, communication and lack of flexibility in reasoning and various behaviours. The seriousness of the problems that can occur in these areas is very varied, causing that there are people who will need a lot of help while others, with certain difficulties, will be able to face the problems of the day today.
Many people find out they have autism as adults. The cause of this is that they are people with a more or less mild ASD, manifesting relatively mild problems within the typically affected areas in people with autism. They have had problems throughout their lives, and they never saw themselves as completely normal people, but since their problem was mild, there was never the need to go to a professional to receive a diagnosis. They were seen as weird, manic, or overly sensitive for their age, but never viewed as probably autistic.
As we said, many people have a very specific idea of what it is to be autistic. This stereotype implies prejudices about how functional the autistic person can become, thinking that a person with ASD will be condemned to receive support all their life, will never be able to work or be independent. However, many autistic people who do not even now they are autistic have good jobs, have managed to start a family, enjoy a good financial situation and do not seem to need much support, although they may have had more difficulties than a neurological person.
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Why is it not detected in childhood?
There can be several reasons why an adult person with ASD was not diagnosed in childhood. As we said, contrary to what many believe, the TEA does not have to attract as much attention as one thinks. Yes, there are problems with sociability, communication, little flexibility in routine changes and other warning signs but, as these people have mild autism, their behaviour is seen as strange but not too worrying and their parents saw no reason to take them to professional consultation.
Another thing that can happen is directly related to the habitability of autism. As we said, autism has a high genetic component, so that in the same family there may be several members with the disorder. What sometimes happens is that the parents of the child with ASD did not take him for consultation because the behaviour of his offspring was similar to that of one of his parents, attributing this to the fact that he had inherited the same personality. What really happens is that this father had an ASD and, since his son behaved like him, he saw no reason to worry.
The support of family members, teachers and the own personality and ability to overcome many boys and girls with ASD can contribute to making the disorder, making their difficulties go unnoticed and eventually overcoming them without seeing the need to resort to psychological or psychiatric support. The person with autism has been learning techniques to efficiently manage their difficulties, without knowing that they were really caused by a disorder, which has made them have a more or less successful life.
Since people with mild autism progress through life in the same way that others do with some difficulty or other, they do not initially consider going to a psychologist to find out whether they have the disorder. In addition, in our society, we have very internalized the idea that whoever has a more or less functional life can hardly have a psychological disorder, so as these people move on with their lives they do not see the need to go to a professional of mental health.
Another reason why it goes unnoticed in childhood is not presenting intellectual difficulties combined with obsessive behaviours. Some boys and girls with autism are very good at all kinds of tasks where you have to find a pattern, which is very useful in subjects like math, physics, and chemistry. As many parents and teachers focus exclusively on academic achievement, if they see that their child is doing well, they are already satisfied and do not consider the need to address the social sphere or communication problems with others.
The main problem of adults with autism
The main problem for adults with ASD, no matter how successful, are social relationships, and this affects both their personal and work life. They have a hard time making friends, and it is even more difficult to keep them. While some can be very good at making friends and even appear to be very outgoing and sociable, their cordiality is rather rare. Communication problems lead to misunderstandings and create uncomfortable situations that lead to the loss of friends.
Another aspect is their difficulty in lying, grasping sarcasm or making use of social conventions. Many people with ASD are very sincere and honest, sometimes so direct that they clash with the habits and social requirements considered culturally as cordial. For example, if someone asks them if the dress they have put on suits them and it turns out to be horrible, the autistic person may be very sincere to the point of hurting them without meaning to.
Communication and sociability problems may seem minor if you’re generally functional, but they do involve significant problems in the long run. Being so sincere, honest and not understanding or making use of social formalities makes your relationships, especially sentimental ones, more likely to fail. In fact, this is the main reason why many functional autistic people who manage to get married end up divorcing after a few years.
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How is it detected in adults?
As we said, there are not a few autistic people who discover that they are autistic as adults and, also, have the suspicion that their own parents were. But it also happens the other way around: having a child who is suspected of being autistic and, during the diagnosis, beginning to suspect that it is too. Many adults are diagnosed shortly after their child’s diagnosis is confirmed, and this story is becoming increasingly common.
Over the years, fathers and mothers have become aware of the need to go to the psychologist with their children at some point in their development. While it is still not the general rule, many parents do, especially if they notice something strange about their children. They hope it is nothing, but they say to themselves that prevention is better than cure, and they go to the professional’s office. There they discover that yes, their children have ASD and that it has been good to confirm it soon, so they can intervene as soon as possible.
As every good parent should do, many of those who discover that their children have AIDS begin to do their research to make sure they handle the situation as well as possible. During their research, they began to realize that they themselves have characteristics that could well be considered typical of an autistic person, so they decide to go to a psychologist’s office and be evaluated where they receive confirmation that they also have ASD.
Everyone is different and everyone assumes the diagnosis differently, yet many people feel relieved after learning that they have ASD. After years of misunderstanding, of being called “weirdos”, of being blamed for behaving too roughly or not being interested in their social relationships, these people discover that they are that way because of a mental disorder, not because of lack of interest or incompetence Social.
By understanding and assuming their disorder, people with ASD feel much better, they see themselves better able to take care of themselves, understand the difficulties of their daily life, progress in their work, social and personal life. In addition, once the diagnosis is confirmed, they begin to receive psychological strategies to manage the aspects of the disorder, notably improving their lives. If the patient was one of those who before knowing that they had ASD was functional, now it will be even more so.
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Focused on childhood, ignoring adulthood: the situation of autistic adults
So far we have discussed the lives of autistic people who are diagnosed with the disorder as adults. As we have said, among the reasons why a person with ASD was not diagnosed in childhood is to have mild symptoms of the disorder. As in his childhood, the problems of communication and social interaction did not attract too much attention, his environment did not worry too much, in addition to that he has had more or less normal growth and has reached adulthood with more or less functional life.
However, not all people with ASD have this “luck.” Those that manifest the disorder with the worst severity are easily diagnosed in their childhood since they attract a lot of attention. This is one of the reasons why both diagnosis and treatment for people with ASD focus a lot in the early years because that is where the “classic” disorder is first detected. However, this disorder does not disappear with the passage of time: it is still there in both adolescence and adulthood.
It is true that in recent decades there has been progressing both in the diagnosis and understanding of ASD, with more and more professionals. However, considering that many professionals specializing in autism in childhood are still lacking, the situation is even worse for autism in adulthood. Autism in adults has not been as researched or treated as that found in children, which is a problem because autistic children eventually become autistic adults and will require help.
Leaving aside autistic adults who have been functional for most of their lives without knowing they had the disorder, the overall situation for adults with autism is not very encouraging. At the end of compulsory education, where there is the support given by the state, these aids suddenly end, leaving autistic people alone in front of the world, a world that they find difficult to understand and that generates anxiety, stress and confusion. As a consequence, many autistic people stop studying and relatively few (compared to the general population) manage to find a job without help.
Taking all this into account, it is necessary that more research be done on autism in adulthood, improve existing therapeutic techniques and create new ones in order to provide well-being to these types of patients. Those with ASD must also be kept busy at work since it has been seen that working helps them to become more independent in addition to making their symptoms milder and learning ways to manage their daily life, applicable both to the work environment and to the family.
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