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Autism in adults – how to spot the signs

Although the first signs of autism are usually seen in childhood, it’s often not diagnosed until adulthood.

Model Christine McGuinness has just been diagnosed with autism at the age of 33, declaring on Instagram “Autistic and proud,” and revealing there have been little hints throughout her life that pointed to the condition, which she shares with her three children.

And while the first signs of autism are typically seen in early childhood, it’s not uncommon for it to be picked up much later in life – for example, naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (a type of autism) until he was in his forties.

Packham has said his condition means he struggles in social situations and has difficulty with human relationships, and McGuinness, who’s married to A Question Of Sport host Paddy McGuinness, has said on Instagram: “I have felt different my whole life. Honestly, I am relieved to finally understand myself!”

How do you spot the symptoms of autism as an adult?

The National Autistic Society stresses symptoms vary widely, and explains that it’s “quite common” for people to have gone through life without an autism diagnosis, feeling like they don’t quite fit in.

“So many autistic people and families will see a lot of themselves in Christine McGuinness’ powerful words, particularly women and girls,” says NAS chief executive Caroline Stevens. “Every autistic person is different, but the core characteristics of autism are always the same, whether you’re six or 60.”

She explains the process for diagnosing adults can be complex, as a diagnostician or doctor will want to look back over a person’s whole life and how they developed and interacted with people and the world. But she stresses: “A diagnosis can be life-changing and vital to getting timely care and support, and many autistic adults find that a diagnosis in later life explains things about themselves and how they’ve experienced the world since they were children.

“Almost everyone has heard of autism now, but few people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic – both the strengths and how hard life can be without the right support.”

What are some of the symptoms of autism in adulthood?

Difficulty interpreting language: You may have difficulties understanding the meaning of both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures, sarcasm, tone of voice or figures of speech, making it hard to have back-and-forth conversations or tell what someone’s feeling.

Taking things literally: You might take things literally and not understand abstract concepts.

Slow information processing: It may take you more time than others to process information or answer questions.

You repeat things: You may sometimes repeat what other people say to you (echolalia) – this may be because although you’ve heard what’s been said, you’re still processing it.

People can think you’re insensitive: You may have difficulty ‘reading’ people in social situations, struggling to interpret their sometimes subtle cues that indicate how they’re feeling or what their intentions are. This may make others think you’re being insensitive.

You’re hard to ‘read’: Similarly, you may use limited facial expressions yourself, making it difficult for others to interpret your thoughts and feelings – you may struggle with eye contact and look away a lot during conversations.

You get overwhelmed: When social situations overload you, you may leave the room or area to get time alone.

You haven’t got many friends: And may find it hard to make friends.

Your behaviour can be repetitive: Your may do things repetitively, to help you cope with unpredictable aspects of life that may confuse you. So you may want to always travel the same way to work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast. This repetitive behaviour may also show itself in repeated movements like rocking, twirling a pen or opening and closing a door. The NAS says this can help calm autistic people, but it can sometimes be done simply because they enjoy it.

You like rituals: You may have rituals, or like to keep your possessions in a particular order, and get upset or angry if your ritual is disturbed or your things are moved.

You don’t like change: Change to routine can be upsetting for someone with autism – this could be anything from coping with big events like Christmas, or just uncertainty at work.

Over or under-sensitivity: Autistic people may be over or under-sensitive to a whole range of things, including sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures and pain. The NAS says this can range from finding background sounds like music in a restaurant terribly loud or distracting, even though other people can just ignore it, to preferring not to be hugged because it can be physically uncomfortable.

You have highly focused interests: Many autistic people are fascinated by, and have encyclopaedic knowledge of, specific interests – take Greta Thunberg, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and her devotion to climate activism, and Packham’s love and impressive knowledge about the natural world. Just like Thunberg and Packham, autistic people will often become experts in their special interests and like to share their knowledge.

You get anxious: Social situations, or facing change, can make adults with autism very anxious, and the NAS says that while it’s important for autistic people to know what triggers their anxiety and learn to cope with it, this may not be easy because they can struggle to recognise their own emotions. As a result, the NAS says more than a third of autistic people have serious mental health issues.

You may have meltdowns/shutdowns: If you’ve got autism, you might lose control if you become overwhelmed by a situation. This is a meltdown or shutdown – a meltdown might involve shouting, screaming, crying, kicking, lashing out, and/or biting, while during a shutdown an autistic person may simply go quiet or switch off.

To find out more, or seek a diagnosis, speak to your GP.

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Melina - Assistant Editor

Hi I'm Melina, a mother of 3 teenage children and with a particular interest in all things health related. I run a busy household and smallholding alongside my work with Silversurfers, which currently includes dogs, fish, hens, ducks and pigs!

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