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Autism Spectrum Disorder in Adulthood

Adults with Asperger syndrome share three main characteristics
Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder share three main characteristics

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) begins in infancy but it often causes the most problems in adolescence and young adulthood when accomplishments depend so much on successful social relationships. Problems that were mild enough to be disregarded in childhood become more apparent later on. For many adults, coping with ASD at this stage in their life is more difficult and has greater significance given what is at stake.

What does Autism Spectrum Disorder in adulthood look like compared to its childhood variation?

Impaired Social Interaction

Proper behavior among people is guided by established and widely held views of what is thought to be appropriate and fitting. Adults with ASD act as if they are unaware of these accepted rules. This lack of awareness is, in my experience as an ASD psychologist, the more common feature of adult Autism.

One job applicant, when notified that the interview was over, asked the interviewer his age. In this, the applicant overstepped social convention by blurring the line between formality and intimacy.

Adults with Autism often appear as though they lack interest in the feelings or ideas of others, but not because they actually lack interest. Rather, the difficulty they have in understanding and applying the accepted rules that govern social behavior makes it appear as though they lack interest.

This same problem of understanding rules of relating makes them often seem self-centered and aloof, as though they operate by their own rules and practices. As the problems of relating to others progress and magnify, many adults with ASD retreat into social isolation.

Non-Verbal Communication

The difficulty in communicating that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have is not due just to problems understanding how people interact but also to peculiarities in sending and receiving cues nonverbally. Individuals with ASD are wired to hear only the content of language itself, the spoken word. They naturally expect a word to have the same meaning every time it is used.

But meanings change considerably from one inflection and tone of voice to another. Words can be delivered with a different set of facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, movement and other nonverbal expressions. A statement that is delivered with a frown is different from one delivered with a smile.

Understanding as well as using proper nonverbal communication is naturally difficult for the adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Often, the results are misleading body language, poor eye contact, absence of expressive gestures and movements, and peculiar vocal tones. The lack of fit between a situation and a person’s nonverbal expressions is one of the main features I use as an ASD psychologist to identify Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Special Interests

Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder typically have unusual, repetitive and narrow interests and hobbies. They are pursued privately without regard to how they might involve other people. Examples include collecting pictures and books about cathedrals, observing road signs, memorizing the dates of historical events, bus routes, heights of tallest building, models of steam train engines and varieties of deciduous trees.

Often accompanying this repetitive pattern of activities is a dislike of change in one’s environment and a preference for repetitiveness. Some adults have a hypersensitivity to noise, taste, smells and touch, such that too much of one or more of these disturbs and disorients the person.

In some cases, special interests and special abilities go hand in hand. Skills with numbers and good rote memory are present among some adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Often, a single-minded pursuit of their interests can lead to great achievements in academic and professional life.

This leads to my final thought. When looking at the characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder in adulthood, one might understandably conclude that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits. How, for example, could someone with such difficulties interacting and communicating with others find reason to approach life with confidence and optimism?

Simply put, the adult with Autism, while challenged in many ways, also enjoys many exceptional characteristics that offset the complications of Autism. Like anyone else, strengths exist alongside shortcomings, and it is the work of those with ASD, as it is with others, to try and turn the balance in favor of the former. The adult with ASD has every reason to believe such an undertaking is entirely possible.

My work as an Autism Spectrum Disorder psychologist has shown me time and again that success in life is available for those who want it.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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