Autism Spectrum Disorder

What Does Autism Spectrum Disorder Look Like in Adults?

Awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in adults has grown dramatically in recent years, which reflects both an increase in diagnoses and in the public’s understanding that, even late in life, a diagnosis can offer major benefits and relief. Learn more about the symptoms of autism in adults here.

An illustration of an adult woman with autism.

Could You Have Symptoms of Autism in Adults?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) occurs in all age, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control1 . Autism is generally characterized by social and communication difficulties and by repetitive behaviors. Often, severe forms of ASD are diagnosed in the first two years of a child’s life, but high-functioning individuals may not be diagnosed until much later in life.

Signs of autism occur in three main areas:

  • Social interactions
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Repetitive or ritualistic behaviors

Some autistic adults may exhibit symptoms that resemble attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); others may have symptoms like impaired spoken language. Bottom line – adult autism can manifest in different ways. Regardless of manifestation or severity, ASD symptoms can pose challenges in everyday life. And as our understanding of those challenges improves, more people than ever are being diagnosed with ASD.

[Sef-Test: Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms In Adults]

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Adults

Common symptoms of autism in adults include:

  • Difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling
  • Trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language, or social cues
  • Difficulty regulating emotion
  • Trouble keeping up a conversation
  • Inflection that does not reflect feelings
  • Difficulty maintaining the natural give-and-take of a conversation; prone to monologues on a favorite subject
  • Tendency to engage in repetitive or routine behaviors
  • Only participates in a restricted range of activities
  • Strict consistency to daily routines; outbursts when changes occur
  • Exhibiting strong, special interests

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is typically a life-long condition, though early diagnosis and treatment can make a tremendous difference.

Autism Symptoms in Adults at Home

Other peoples’ feelings baffle you. You have a collection of figurines on your desk that must be in the same order at all times. These, and other common manifestations of ASD, may be apparent in adults at home:

  • Your family members lovingly refer to you as the “eccentric professor” of the family, even though you don’t work in academia.
  • You’ve always wanted a best friend, but never found one.
  • You often invent your own words and expressions to describe things.
  • Even when you’re in a quiet place, like the library, you find yourself making involuntary noises like clearing your throat over and over.
  • You follow the same schedule every day of the week, and don’t like unexpected events.
  • Expressions like, “Curiosity killed the cat” or “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” are confusing to you.
  • You are always bumping into things and tripping over your own feet.
  • In your leisure time, you prefer to play individual games and sports, like golf, where everyone works for themselves instead of working toward a common goal on a team.

Autism Symptoms in Adults at Work

Symptoms of ASD vary greatly from person to person based on the severity of the condition. These or similar manifestations of ASD may be apparent at work:

  • When you’re having a conversation with your boss, you prefer to look at the wall, her shoes, or anywhere but directly into her eyes.
  • Your co-workers say that you speak like a robot.
  • Each item on your desk has a special place, and you don’t like when the cleaning company rearranges it to dust.
  • You are really good at math, or software coding, but struggle to succeed in other areas.
  • You talk to your co-workers the same way you talk with your family and friends.
  • During meetings, you find yourself making involuntary noises, like clearing your throat over and over.
  • When talking with your boss, you have difficulty telling if he is happy with your performance or mad at you.

In addition, autistic individuals may exhibit extraordinary talents in visual skills, music, math, and art. And roughly 40 percent of autistic individuals have average or above-average intelligence.

If you experience these or similar symptoms of ASD, consult a doctor or mental-health professional for a formal autism evaluation and learn more about treatment options for autism symptoms in adults.

Signs of Autism in Adults: Next Steps

View Article Sources

1“Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ed. Center for Disease Control. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 12 Dec. 2019. 

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12 Comments & Reviews

    1. While I believe it is true that autism cannot be outgrown, I also believe it can be overcome in a limited sense. The more I learn about my 19 y.o. stepdaughter, who deals with ASD and an early Asperger’s diagnosis, the more I believe I would have been diagnosed as a child myself. I experienced all of the symptoms, but in the early ’80s it wasn’t very well understood. Consequently, my mother was very protective to a slight fault: she would not allow me to participate in any school programs which may have helped me with understanding that I actually did have a neurological social disorder. Now, at age 40, I believe that I still have many of the symptoms but have learned to overcome them. However, I’m also at a point where I no longer feel like I can continue to contribute to the traditional workforce. My childhood annoyances and pet peeves still irritate me to the point where it is difficult to concentrate on projects or focus on anything relevent to urgent tasks. Mentally, internally, I feel like I am melting down but on the outside I mask such feelings… More often than not, I mask them to the point where nobody realizes what I’m going through until I snap.

      Anyway, my point is this: we’re all a little autistic. How well we cope early in life decides how far we may get in life without assistance. I feel like I’ve hit a glass ceiling and it will hold my family back. But I’m also very nervous that I will never be diagnosed as I’ve “outgrown” many of the characteristic markers of ASD. And we need to be sensitive towards those who do not understand the difference between outgrowing an obstacle and overcoming one. Overcoming obstacles doesn’t remove them. So yes, it’s a lifelong “condition” that can appear to go away, and many will see that overcoming as a permanent win when it isn’t really. That doesn’t make neurotypical people insensitive or ignorant in general. Nobody understands ASD completely so how could one be “better” at understanding than another? Especially since everyone is different and every ASD-diagnosed individual is different from every other?

      But I’m rambling…

      1. MortallyWounded, I completed identify with your first paragraph. I am 51 and accidentally discovered that I have ASD Level 1, “high functioning autism”. I am self-diagnosed and having trouble getting a formal adult diagnosis. I was unemployed for a few months with no insurance. But now even with insurance I find it difficult to find a doctor to perform an adult diagnosis who doesn’t want $1800-$6000 for the evaluation and testing. I would like a formal diagnosis as this is a prerequisite in my neck of the woods for support groups. (And I am having executive functioning issues at work on my new job because it is so busy and demanding)

        My point here is please stop saying, “we’re all a little autistic”. Autism is not based on a symptom or two, which people may display on occasion. It is based upon a constellation of neurobiological factors which include sensory, social/communication, and executive function issues which are and have always been present in the subject; they do not pop up. Even though ASD is a “developmental disorder”, one doesn’t “develop” the condition, one is born with it. I suspect the symptoms in HFA unfold according to the conditions in the environment. I always had executive function issues at my old job but it was much slower paced and my boss was beautifully understanding. My new job is ferociously busy and demanding, requiring me to do more than one thing at a time and switch between tasks and plan tasks, all of which I am really struggling to keep up with and fear for my future. So my issues are really coming to the forefront now because the new environment. But most of my life I have unknowingly been compensating for my issues to stay off normal people’s radar (a spectacular fail, though).

    2. I think your comment is unnecessarily harsh and unfair. Yes ASD is with you for life. But after nearly 20 years working with people with significant ASD, I can tell you that we’re all just people. Those who try and push and are pushed do massively better. They learn to be in charge of their lives to the greatest extent possible. Those who are treated like poor little disabled people will always be that. You know, just like everyone else? Because people with ASD are just people.

      From day one we start will all of our sensitivities and natural instincts. Many of them must be blunted and managed by learning through childhood how to live in the world as it is. Sensitivities reduce. Fears are reduced. Excitement and enthusiasm leads to growth and knowledge. People with ASD are no different. But many parents, often with good intentions, stop expecting their children to grow up because of their diagnosis. They reward bad behaviour, cementing it. They don’t push their children to do their best and to learn as much as possible. They’re almost invariably unaware of, and hence poorly coping with their own ASD. Those children become adults who are unable to live in the real world. And even many of the ones who got good support along the way end up thinking they have an immutable death sentence and give up trying.

      You can’t grow new genes. But you can have expectations and push yourself to get as much out of your mind and body as possible in these brief lives we get. You can do and be almost anything you want. I’ve said this since I was about 20. Your genes are the recipe but you are the cook. I humbly suggest that you stop getting angry with well-meaning people and get cooking!

  1. Sure it can, more or less. People can more or less compensate on all kinds of problems and over time that can make a real change. That’s the definition of high-functioning.

    1. I discovered my diagnosis accidentally, in my 40s, while taking a psychology class! Suddenly my whole life made sense. I knew I had issues but did not understand why I was different. I thought I had mild learning disabilities (executive functioning issues) and learned to compensate by reading things 2 or 3 times, and studying three times as hard. I hated being touched but learned to stomach it ’cause everyone shakes hands and hugs. I often took too much time to accomplish things at work because I was so detailed oriented, and often ended up staying late or coming in early or working through lunch to accomplish things. So yes, we can compensate, but I will tell you, it has not gotten easier for me. I feel like I have to work twice as hard to accomplish things and frankly,it’s exhausting. I have just started to think about a new career path in an area that would more closely fit my strengths and not highlight my weaknesses with executive functioning so much.

  2. Autism is neurological. You can learn many compensatory behaviors that make life run smoother and the spectrum behaviors less noticeable. However, the autism remains.

  3. If 40% are average or above average intelligence, what does that even mean? I’d expect about 50% of the population to be average or above average intelligence. So that would mean that the average person with autism is less intelligent than average. Why not just say that? Or is that not what you meant? That is so confusing.

  4. Okay, to start – I’ve got Autism, that’s why I have an overwhelming need to respond to some of the previous comments, as well as the article itself.

    In the first place I think it’s important to point out that in autopsy, a person with autism actually has a different looking brain than a normal person, so obviously you can’t grow out of it. I think talk about overcoming autism or managing it would mostly be said by the non-autistic or those recently diagnosed & have yet to fully understand themselves & their condition. For us, we are working on a different frequency, it feels a little like being the only sober person in a room full of drunks. No amount of learning can change that (see info on monotropism below – I think its a good way of understanding the difficulties an autistic mind faces).
    Not everyone is a little autistic this is a stereotype. Also, women are just as likely to have its as men too, women are just better at hiding it, which often leads to late diagnoses once they can start to recognise the autism in themselves (You can be diagnosed at any age as well). The fact that it is harder to pick up in women is troubling seen as how your 90% more likely to be sexually abused if you are mentally disabled and In studies done of women who have received a late diagnosis most have experienced sexual abuse at least once in their past. Physical abuse is also more common, because parents & partners can’t understand them.
    In this article it says: “You are really good at math, or software coding, but struggle to succeed in other areas”
    This is a long-running autism stereotype that branches off from monotropism, which IS a symptom of autism. Basically “A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel… In the monotropic mind, interests that are active at any given time tend to consume most of the available attention, causing difficulty with tasks that demand a broad attention span, including conventional social interaction.” So if your interest happens to be math, you will be very good at it. Also autistic people are often dyslexic, so we all have to work a little harder with words, but it’s still possible – one of my interests happen to be ancient history. As a humanities subject, it requires a lot of essay writing, but I still managed doing it at a university level.
    A lot of parents fall in the category of thinking it can be overcome or they can learn strategies to deal with it. There is nothing that can be done about the monotropism, there will always be things our mind isn’t capable of, but there are also things a ‘normal’ mind can’t do.
    A lot of onlookers think that parents have seemingly given up on their children (while this might be true for a few, I don’t think it’s as many as most think), giving your child space is different to giving up. When an autistic person has a melt down parents SHOULD give them space. Everyone seems to think there are two responses a parent can have to their autistic child – overprotective and wanting them to improve or giving up & those in one camp usually disagrees with the other, but there are worse options – physical abuse is common with mentally disabled kids, especially if they haven’t been diagnosed. No matter what option you do choose it won’t change your child’s brain functions anyway & you usually finds this is more of a problem to the family of an autistic person than to the autistic person themselves – we’re too busy focusing on our interests, while those around us are seeing the elusive bigger picture in the framework of society.
    Some believe the monotropic mind is like achieving a flow state, an elusive goal for the highest scholars: “Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). It is widely viewed as highly positive and many texts advise readers on how to attain it when performing tasks. Autistic people are sometimes puzzled that flow seems to be regarded as somewhat elusive and difficult to experience, since the common autistic experience of complete engagement with an interest fits the definition of flow well.”
    Lastly, if 2 people have the flu, 90% of their symptoms would be the same, this is not the case with autism and it’s not really a spectrum either. Yes there are some classic base behaviours that most have, but it’s not as easy to identify and diagnose as this article would have you believe. That is why I wouldn’t trust self diagnoses and could write a whole essay on why you shouldn’t – I have autism so I trust facts, not opinion. If you are a self diagnosed and you are offended by this statement – you probably don’t have autism.
    My advice, based on my experiences, is to enjoy the variety your autistic relatives bring to the family & if you have been diagnosed with autism, let your family treat you as different, because you are and know that this gives you some special gifts others wish they had. Lastly, you are learning coping strategies to make your life easier, not theirs. They have the social abilities to deal with your autism, you don’t have all the social abilities to deal with their normal.

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