Most adults with autism have likely possessed their personality traits since early childhood, but were either overlooked or misdiagnosed. Autistic traits from childhood can persist into adulthood, but with a wide range of outcomes depending on the severity of the disorder. While every case of autism is unique and symptoms will likely range in scope, there are several common signs that are characteristic of adults with autism.
Communications and Social Interactions
Adults with autism often experience difficulties with the nuances of social communications and interactions. Even those high-functioning adults with the mildest form of autism -- known as Asperger Syndrome -- may be good at basic communications, but can’t pick up on body and facial language cues. Small talk or small group discussions are challenging. These individuals may take what others say literally and fail to understand teasing. They often possess a limited range of discussion topics from which to choose, and are not aware when a topic becomes socially inappropriate. They may have a hard time making eye contact, understanding another person’s perspective, and expressing emotions or empathy. As a result of these difficulties with communication, many adults with autism are not very social and do not have many friends.
While adults with autism are often extremely creative and can successfully pursue musical and artistic interests, they are often less flexible with day-to-day tasks. As a result, many with autism will overcompensate with meticulous checklists and rigid routines and schedules. Adults with autism can experience intense anxiety when there is a kink in the plans, a change in routine, or the possibility of the unknown. For example, an adult with autism may be unable to adhere to a loose itinerary when it comes to taking a trip or even figuring out what to pack before leaving, without suffering much anxiety.
Adults with autism can appear to have inappropriate or immature understanding of what is sexually appropriate. While these individuals appear to be just as interested in sex as other adults their age, the skills required to manage an intimate relationship often eludes them, and they have trouble negotiating the often unspoken rules of courtship.
Secondary Mental Health Issues
Many adults with autism suffer from secondary mental health issues related to their symptoms. Obsessive compulsive behaviors, phobias and anxieties around routines and social interactions are also common in adults with autism, as is depression and its resulting social isolation.
Although by no means common, some adults with autism show signs of dyspraxia, a sort of clumsiness that can impact both fine and gross motor skills. People with dyspraxia often have sloppy handwriting, and trip or fall a lot.
- National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence: Autism -- Recognition, Referral, Diagnosis and Management of Adults on the Autism Spectrum
- Disability Policy and Studies, School of Health Professions, University of Missouri: Adult Autism and Employment
- Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders: Self-Reported Autism Symptoms in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders