Identifying autism traits in adults is a difficult task, since they’re not always as evident as one may expect.
In addition, there’s a huge difference in the manifestation of the autism spectrum syndrome in men and women.
Autism spectrum disorder manifests in various ways and with very different features.
In this article, I’ll try to provide a little more clarity on the subject.
On the one hand, so that you can identify if the person you’re interacting with, or even yourself, has autistic traits.
And on the other, so that when it comes to interacting with them, you understand the reason for certain behaviors.
I’m not a specialist, but I will speak from my 3-year experience working in Psychiatry.
What is Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases (DSM-5).
People with very marked autistic features are usually diagnosed in childhood.
But in Psychiatry, we sometimes got a lot of adults with anxiety or depression problems who ended up being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
And it wasn’t always easy to identify autistic traits in these people.
Especially when they had a mix of ADHD and ASD.
What’s the difference between Asperger’s and Autism?
Both words point to the same disorder, but have different names based on the classification that exposed it.
Under the European classification (ICD-10) it still maintains its old name: “Asperger”
In DSM-5 it’s called the “autism spectrum”, to corroborate the different ways in which this disorder can appear.
Therefore, and to accommodate that variety, its name was changed to “autism spectrum disorder” due to the huge variety of nuances or functional levels found in this disorder.
How to identify autism traits in adults
This disorder has two basic criteria:
Criteria A: Communication and social and relational interaction in various contexts
1. A lack of reciprocity
In general, people with autistic traits do not understand how relationships work.
Therefore, when faced with situations in which they need to play a social and reciprocal role, they tend to get very anxious.
This anxiety usually emerges because:
- They don’t know how to start a conversation with strangers.
- They have difficulty having conversations (they don’t know what to ask)
- They don’t like to talk about subjects that don’t interest them.
- They avoid talking about superficial topics such as the weather
- They don’t tend to spontaneously initiate conversations about what they’ve done on the weekend or when on holidays
- They have a hard time trusting people
But if you ask them something, they may answer any question.
And if they know the person, it may be easier for them to start and maintain a conversation.
Women can manage the social aspect by learning to imitate others.
They observe what others do and say and “do the same”
However, this can be quite exhausting, and, in the end, they end up avoiding social contact.
They’re also quite “direct” people, that is, they tell you what they’re thinking.
And one must understand this.
This doesn’t mean they only think about themselves, they just can’t put themselves in other people’s shoes.
2. Difficulty understanding non-verbal language in social interactions
People with autistic traits have a hard time understanding “double meanings”, irony, or lies, and tend to take what you say literally.
They also have a high standard for what is “right” and “wrong”.
This sometimes leads to uncomfortable situations.
They may also have a hard time reading body language.
Therefore, you could be talking to a person and using your body to indicate your desire to end the conversation and leave.
And the person with autistic features may not receive that information.
Some find it hard to maintain eye contact when talking.
But based on my experience, most can maintain eye-contact during a conversation.
Many learned to do it as children.
And for others, it doesn’t bother them so much.
3. Difficulty understanding, developing, and maintaining social relationships
Another characteristic that they shared was that they had no friends.
And in general, they couldn’t understand why.
And this is very characteristic.
There is a lack of understanding of how relationships work.
What must be done to create or maintain them.
They handle 1-to-1 relationships better than groups.
And they generally enjoy their solitude.
And this is important.
This doesn’t mean that they always want to be alone.
Well, I’d say they do, but it doesn’t bother them.
However, we must be careful when identifying autism features in adults, since they manifest differently in women and men.
If you want more information on female autism, you can watch this video:
Criteria B: Repetitive and limited patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.
When deciding whether the person met enough criteria to be sent to a neuropsychological evaluation, stereotyped and repetitive patterns were the hardest to find.
Especially, body movements or behavior.
1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, stereotypical or repetitive conversation, or use of specific pathways
Stereotypical body movements can include:
- Balancing one’s body
- Shaking their hands
- Making faces
Or be vocal, such as:
- Making sounds
- Coughing or making a cough-like sound with their throat
- Saying specific words
At times, they may also repeat different behaviors such as:
- Turning a lamp off and on
- Spinning an object
- Aligning things
- Watching the same movie/video or documentary repeatedly
They may also repeat the same word, joke, or story very often or all the time.
Some have a certain degree of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
2. Ensuring that things don’t change from day to day, fixation on ritualized verbal or non-verbal routines or patterns
Identifying autistic traits also involves assessing the importance that the person gives to their routines.
And their reactions when dealing with changes and unforeseen events.
In general, having a clear routine gives them a kind of control over their day.
And curiously, that routine has to be the same every day and not undergo any changes.
For example, one can have the following morning routine:
Get up, shower, have the same breakfast and go to work.
If that routine is changed, and you tell them to have breakfast before showering, it may cause them discomfort or even irritate them.
You may even get into a fight with that person because you introduced a change in their routine.
Because the changes destabilize them.
Since it’s hard for them to adapt to new situations.
That’s why it’s so important to explain in advance, to a person with autism spectrum disorder, everything that is going to happen during the day if you don’t plan on following their routine.
For example, if you’re going to a party, a certain place or doing something different.
I’d also recommend not to spontaneously visit a person with autism because you may be the one who gets the surprise.
Either because they’ll get very nervous or because they won’t open the door.
3. A fixed and very limited special interest that is intense and well-focused
This can lead to huge differences between women and men.
Men do gain a specific and limited interest that they may maintain over the years, such as trains, music, fishing.
Women sometimes have it for some type of animal such as horses, dogs, etc. or by getting very interested in for example makeup etc. in adolescence.
But their interests may also change.
In this sense, to identify autism features in adults, you’ll need to assess the time that the person dedicates to that particular interest.
And, if due to the excessive time spent on that interest, they stop doing or forget other important tasks or responsibilities.
Some people can also accumulate things like books, stamps, cans, etc.
4. Hyper or underactive sensory stimulation or interest in sensory aspects
These people tend to be highly sensitive to:
- food consistency
For example, they may need sunglasses when the sun starts to rise or when it’s bright.
They may be bothered by strong lights in a room or even on the subway.
They may not stand certain flavors, such as something acid or salty.
Or they may expect a certain consistency in food. For example, some cannot eat soups or creams.
I once had a patient who ate her soup as follows:
First, she ate the potatoes, then the vegetables, and finally she drank the broth.
But she couldn’t mix all three in one tablespoon.
Another feature is that they usually don’t like being touched.
That includes giving or receiving hugs or pampering.
They’re also bothered by contact with certain textiles.
For example, they may not stand jeans or anything that isn’t cotton.
When they focus on something, they have a hard time handling two stimuli at the same time, for example:
- talking and eating or
- listening to the teacher and taking notes.
However, they can notice the smallest details of what’s happening around them.
For example, if they’ve changed a lamppost on their street or if they need to find the red dot of the parking camera.
We all have autistic traits
Whether a person is diagnosed or not with Asperger or Autism Spectrum Disorder doesn’t depend as much on their traits, but on:
- How intense these autistic traits are
- The suffering they cause to the person in at least two different aspects of their life.
Of everything we’ve explained so far,
What traits do you identify with?
I could state that I prefer 1-on-1 conversations to group conversations.
I can strike a conversation with a stranger, but it is hard for me, and I’ll think twice about doing so.
I like things to be “in their place” (the one I give it) and if someone changes that, I have to “replace” them as they were.
I like routines and I like knowing what I’m going to do throughout the day.
I’ve always been particularly interested in psychotherapy, even though lately, I spend a loooot of time in entrepreneurship.
And even though I can wear any type of textile, I always choose the ones that are softer and more comfortable.
But the main difference I have with someone with autism spectrum disorder is that these symptoms’ intensity is moderate and doesn’t make me suffer in any way.
Also, I don’t meet all the criteria.
But what I want to make you understand with this article is that there’s no difference between you and a person with Asperger’s.
You may have some difficulties, and they may have others, but that doesn’t make them people who face challenges.
Just like you.
I hope this article helped expand your knowledge and understanding of this disorder.
If you think you know someone who could use this article, make sure you share it.