10 Things to Know About Autism in Adults- Homage

10 Things to Know About Autism in Adults

Autism that goes undiagnosed in adults may cause an impact to their social, physical, and mental health. Check out these X facts about autism in adult.

by Calvyn Ee

Adult Autism in Malaysia

Diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children below 12 years old have increased to 589 from 2021, up five percent from 562 children in 2020. The statistics for adult autism aren’t confirmed, though in 2018 it’s stated that as many as 300,000 people in the country were on the autism spectrum.

While autism awareness is growing in the country, there’s still a great deal of work to educate people on what autism is and why early intervention is so important for persons with autism. Autism in adults can greatly impact a person’s life in many ways, especially to their self-esteem and how others perceive and interact with them.

ASD is a developmental disability that affects an individual’s behaviour, communication and social skills. It essentially affects how a person’s brain processes information: some may have difficulty in communicating with other people, while others may have difficulty understanding what they are being told (verbally or otherwise). Many people with autism also have a preferred routine or order to doing things, and some will find it distressing if these routines are changed or threatened in any way.

People with autism are sometimes described as neurodivergent, meaning that they experience the world in a different (but equally valuable and acceptable) way compared to a more ‘normal’ or neurotypical person’s experience. In many cases, their “being different” can greatly affect their lives once they reach adulthood, where neurodivergent behaviours aren’t tolerated or fully understood.

Autism awareness is of paramount importance in order to better understand what they go through and to help them through their journey. Adult autism can be particularly challenging when they have had to go through life on their own without support; the least we can do is to help them out as best as we can.

Is Autism Hereditary?

ASD is known to be hereditary; having a family history of ASD does increase the risk of developing ASD, as some studies note that when one identical twin has ASD, the other twin has an 80 percent chance of having the condition, too. There is no specific “autism gene,” however, but multiple genes are the cause of it. It also means that “no gene is consistently [changed] in every person with autism.”

There are also environmental factors that can potentially cause genetic changes that lead to autism. One possible factor is exposure to certain harmful chemical compounds. On that note, various studies have found and proven that vaccines do not cause autism; misconceptions still persist even to this day, but this myth has been thoroughly debunked since the nineties.

The short answer is that mutations, or changes, to your genetics can increase the risk of autism, but it’s still uncertain as to the exact manner in which autism is induced through these gene changes.

Signs of High-Functioning Autism in Adults

“High functioning” autism isn’t an actual medical term but is used mainly to describe persons with autism who are able to “speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills” independently. However, while they may be able to act independently in some areas, they may need help in other areas. Officially, this is known as ASD level 1 (ASD-1); it can go up to level 3, which indicates a person who needs “very substantial support.”

It’s still possible that adults with autism will not have their autism diagnosed until later in life. Because they may display typical neurotypical symptoms or behaviours, people won’t know that they actually have signs of high-functioning autism. Similarly, adults with autism may feel like they feel or seem a lot different than others, which can exacerbate feelings of social anxiety, depressive episodes, or other adverse reactions.

Some signs of high-functioning autism may include:

  • Inability to understand or interpret social cues
  • Difficulty in conversing with others
  • Random/infrequent mood swings or outbursts
  • Easily feel upset or hurt when things don’t work out
  • Sensitive to specific sensory inputs (i.e., pain)

It can be all too easy to misinterpret signs of high-functioning autism as something else, and this can lead to adults with autism feeling even more ostracized for being different.

Challenges of Autism in Adults

While some adults with autism are able to live a good life, they may have difficulties in other areas. This variability of autism in different people can make it difficult to adequately accommodate their needs, as you can’t simply generalize them under specific categories. For example, some may have successful careers in a corporate setting and can communicate with others very well, while others may feel more at home working from home and may feel awkward in social settings.

There may also be adults with autism with sensory processing disorder, where they are highly sensitive to specific external stimuli. This may include noise, light, taste, and even smell; in some cases, an autistic adult may feel overwhelmed by either one or any of these stimuli. Signs of someone experiencing a sensory overload may include:

  • Heightened anxiety or fear
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Rapid breathing
  • Staying away from others
  • Self-harming actions

Sometimes, an autistic adult might perform repetitive actions that seek to calm the person or distract themselves from whatever stimuli is causing the sensory overload. This is known as stimming. While it’s meant to soothe the person, in some cases, it can potentially cause self-harming behaviours, including cutting oneself or banging their head against the wall. It’s easy to misconstrue this as a “temper tantrum.”

Adults with autism might also throw a tantrum when things don’t go their way. It’s not because they want to, but are simply unable to keep their emotions in check. In some cases, an autistic person might yell or throw themselves around, while others may cry uncontrollably.

Then there are challenges in communication and comprehension, as we’ve previously mentioned. Adults with autism may not have an understanding of what comedy or sarcasm is; they may even find it difficult to find meaning in poetry or songs. When stressed, they might have significant difficulty speaking with others compared to when they’re in a good mood.

The very nature of ASD being so unpredictable from person to person makes it a delicate matter of how to help those with ASD to cope with their condition and live a fruitful life.

Do Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Symptoms Worsen with Age?

ASD symptoms can worsen with age, but the condition itself doesn’t. This, however, can depend on a number of reasons.

  • Life circumstances can impact an autistic adult’s symptoms, greatly affecting their coping mechanisms. In some rare cases, they may experience a regression or a loss of certain “skills and abilities”
  • Some adults with autism may exhibit “strong executive functioning skills” that allow them to cope better with their ASD
  • As ageing does cause gradual cognitive decline, it does “amplify the existing challenges” of autism; symptoms may become more prominent, but the ASD condition itself doesn’t worsen.

It’s more important to focus on addressing the real causes of changes in an autistic person’s behaviour, as well as how to help them cope and manage their symptoms in a more positive manner.

What Happens If ASD Goes Undiagnosed?

It’s always advocated for children to undergo an autism diagnosis if they exhibit any signs or symptoms. If the diagnosis is confirmed, early intervention programs will be introduced to help them manage their condition and allow them to live a fruitful life.

However, owing to prevailing misconceptions about autism, many autistic children don’t ever receive a diagnosis until they reach adulthood – and even then, many adults with autism go undiagnosed for the rest of their lives. As previously mentioned, some may be able to transition into adulthood with minimal difficulty, while others may not.

In fact, a study found that receiving an autism diagnosis in adulthood can lead to “lower quality of life, more severe mental health symptoms, and higher autistic trait levels.” This is especially true for high-functioning adults with autism, who seem to exhibit neurotypical behaviours and have lower support needs than other persons with autism.

For some, their autism may have gone undiagnosed because:

  • They were misdiagnosed for something else, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • The autism traits may have been masked; women, in particular, seem to be underdiagnosed with autism, but the why of it remains uncertain

These aren’t necessarily the only reasons why autism is undiagnosed in other persons.

Prevailing Misconceptions on Autism

There are still plenty of myths surrounding autism that confuse people as to what it really is. For one, ASD can’t be reduced to being solely an emotional issue, nor is it an impairment of all cognitive functions. As we mentioned earlier, adults with autism have vastly different experiences; some may find it relatively easy to integrate with society, while others will struggle. With the right amount of support, most adults with ASD will be able to live a good life while still managing ASD symptoms.

The prevalence of adults with ASD also shows that an autism diagnosis isn’t just limited to when you’re a child. The lack of any specific markers to how ASD occurs, beyond the genetic and environmental factors, makes it possible for people to be misdiagnosed with something else. Misdiagnosis, or the lack thereof, is a cause for concern as it means that adults with autism can go all their lives not knowing that they have the condition and are unable to receive the support they deserve.

Other myths that need to be debunked include:

  • Girls are unlikely to get autism: It may not be as common as compared to boys (who are four times more likely to be diagnosed), but it can still happen, especially since ASD runs in families.
  • ASD can be cured: There’s no cure yet for ASD, but there are plenty of treatment options and support measures to help adults with autism.
  • People with autism are savants: Oxford Dictionaries defines a savant as someone who is “very learned or talented” especially in a “particular field of science or the arts.” Adults with autism may exhibit a significant degree of talent in some aspects, but this varies greatly from person to person and may not be very common. They do have some strengths that help them navigate the world, but that doesn’t make them geniuses.
  • People with autism can’t maintain relationships: While some may have impaired social skills, it doesn’t mean they can’t form lasting relationships. They can, and do have, meaningful relationships with others, from family members to close friends.

Quality of Life for Adults with ASD

Not all adults with autism will be able to properly cope with their symptoms or have support systems available to help them every step of the way. For many, the lack of these support channels, the frequent occurrence of misunderstandings, and a lack of empathy from others only lead to greater difficulty for adults with autism to be able to “fit in” with their peers.

It highlights the importance of an early autism diagnosis, or in this case, a diagnosis of confirmation for adults. Children who are diagnosed with ASD can take part in early intervention programs to help them learn about their condition and to be able to manage it with help. For adults, however, they don’t have that same benefit; there are therapies that can help, but for the most part, adults with ASD are on their own.

We’ve already mentioned that getting a diagnosis later in life can lead to adverse outcomes, but that only happens when you don’t get the follow-up support needed to live a relatively normal life. In fact, some adults with autism feel as though a weight has been lifted off their shoulders once they are diagnosed; they find it to be “incredibly validating” to know what it is that makes them feel different.

Getting a Diagnosis in Malaysia

Autism is mainly diagnosed through assessment of the traits and symptoms of the individual. These traits can appear vastly different in different individuals. It may also be expressed differently at different stages of a person’s life. Given that a lot of focus on autism research was mainly on children, professionals who are versed in adult autism may be few in number.

That shouldn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek out a diagnosis, nor does it mean there aren’t any professionals who can help. You may want to look out for licensed psychiatrists or psychologists who are capable of making an official medical diagnosis of ASD. There are also community centres and outreach groups that can help connect you to the right people who can help.

You may be asked a number of questions in order for medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis. Questions may include:

  • Your interests
  • Where you struggle in life
  • Your sensory awareness
  • Your childhood
  • Medical conditions you may have had in the past

It can be dangerous to take a self-assessment on your own and make a diagnosis without any medical advice. In many cases, self-assessment tests you find online are not clinically approved nor are they endorsed by medical professionals either. It’s essential that you speak to a trained professional on the matter and not rely on unproven test results.

Treating ASD

There is no cure for autism, but given how society accommodates neurotypical people better than neurodivergent persons, there are challenges to overcome and adaptations to be made. Various therapy programs exist that can help with treating ASD. Occupational therapy, for example, may help adults with autism overcome barriers to their personal growth and allow them to be more independent in their everyday life. For those struggling with communicating with others, speech therapy can be of significant benefit.

In some cases, medication may be prescribed not to treat ASD itself, but instead to address some of the symptoms of ASD. Anxiety or depression can also affect those with ASD, potentially leading to thoughts of self-harm; medications may be useful to mitigate or manage these symptoms in conjunction with other therapies. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may prove useful to address these kinds of aggressive or self-harming behaviours, as well as help modify negative thought patterns into positive ones.

Given that ASD is a lifelong condition, a treatment plan will need to include long-term goals and consistent follow-up checks in order to see how it’s helping an autistic adult live a fruitful life.

Living with ASD

Adults with autism experience the world differently than neurotypical people do, and that can be a curse when others cannot see things the way they do. When an adult with ASD has their behaviour labelled as “unusual,” “strange,” or even “difficult,” it ultimately hurts the adult with ASD as it causes other people to keep their distance, even if it’s not their fault to begin with.

persons with autism still possess great strengths as well: many of them are able to excel at work, have analytical thinking skills, and are even methodical in their work ethic. With a confirmed diagnosis and the support from friends, family, and medical practitioners, they’re able to adapt these strengths and take it even further, thriving in a society that might look down upon neurodivergence.

But times are changing: medical literature is becoming more inclusive and less objectifying or reductive in nature. Greater awareness about ASD is also helping society to view autism as less of an affliction and more a uniqueness, but there’s still plenty of work to be done to shift perceptions of ASD in a more positive light.

It’s still an uphill struggle, especially when it comes to helping those with autism who find great difficulty in having social interactions with others. Certain types of social settings can cause anxiety, particularly being in noisy places, around unpredictable people, or simply being out of their comfort zone. The alienness of a situation makes it that much harder for adults with autism to form lasting connections, even if they really want to.

It’s essential that everyone plays a part in helping adults with autism. Support groups and NGOs are doing their part in educating Malaysian society about autism, and they can also help you or your loved one through this journey. With the right amount of support, it is hoped that adults with autism will be able to overcome the challenges they face and be able to live long, fruitful lives.

Disclaimer: Homage does not specialise in autism or ADHD care for adults – our selected Care Professionals can offer to assist in the activities of daily living (E.g. showering, toileting, and meal arrangement) of your loved one on a case-by-case basis only.
About the Writer
Calvyn Ee
Calvyn is an aspiring author, poet and storyteller. He spends his time reading, gaming and building stories with his action figure photography.
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