Most articles and images focus on young children when it comes to autism, making it easy to overlook autism in adults. While it’s true that symptoms of autism appear first in early childhood, autism is not a pediatric disorder. Those with the condition, like everyone else, are adults for much longer than they are kids and face lifelong challenges.
So why is relatively little written about autism and adulthood? While there’s no absolute answer, here are some educated guesses:
- Autism manifests before age 3, so most new diagnoses of autism are in children.
- Most people who actively read about autism are worried-but-hopeful parents or guardians of children who are or may be autistic.
- By the time autistic children are adults, many parents or guardians feel they’re as expert as anyone who might be writing about it.
- Because of the changes in how autism is defined, many adults now considered autistic never received an autism diagnosis.
- High-functioning adults with autism are often uninterested in reading about non-autistic perspectives on autism.
- Some adults with autism have intellectual disabilities that make it extremely difficult to read about autism.
As kids age into adulthood, they may need more help rather than less in navigating the incredibly complex, chaotic, and demanding world of the 21st century. The following 10 facts can help you understand what it means to be an adult with autism.
Child With Autism=Adult With Autism
Despite stories you may have read on the Internet, it is incredibly rare for a child accurately diagnosed with autism to become an adult who is no longer diagnosable.
Yes, children with autism may build skills and workarounds that make autism less obvious. Yes, teens with autism may learn social skills and be able to “pass” in some situations. But no, a child with autism won’t just get over their autism to become a neurotypical adult.
Variability in Adults With Autism
Not all adults with autism are alike.
- Some adults with autism have successful careers in demanding fields such as information technology, robotics, and video game production.
- Some work part-time while also taking advantage of day programs and resources.
- Some are unable to function in the workplace and spend their days in sheltered settings.
- Some adults on the spectrum are happily married or partnered.
- Others have romantic friendships.
- Some are unable to form meaningful, reciprocal relationships with peers.
These vast differences make it just as tough to define or provide services for adults with autism as for children on the spectrum.
Success in Autistic Adults
Some adults with diagnosed autism are moderately to highly successful people. Some are happily married and partnered, and many are fully employed.
Some have even become role models for young adults on the spectrum who hope to live full, independent lives. Just a few such role models include:
- Temple Grandin, animal husbandry expert, author, and public speaker
- Stephen Shore, author, musician, professor, public speaker
- John Elder Robison, author, and public speaker
- Dan Ackroyd, actor, singer, radio personality
- Daryl Hannah, actor
These individuals, in addition to some others, are active autism advocates. Many speak publicly about their experiences and offer resources and insights to autistic adults and their family members.
While some high functioning autistic adults are successful, quite a few are severely challenged. Surprisingly, “severe” autism is not always the biggest obstacle to employment or even personal happiness.
Higher functioning individuals are sometimes at a greater disadvantage because they may “pass” for neurotypical while trying to cope with severe anxiety, sensory dysfunction, and social/communication deficits.
Between 25% and 30% of autistic adults are non-verbal or minimally verbal beginning in childhood, meaning they are unable to use spoken language or have significant impairments with it.
According to recent research, people with autism tend to be more aggressive toward others, especially their caretakers. Naturally, non-verbal, aggressive adults with autism are unable to successfully manage typical living situations or jobs.
Great Strengths and Abilities
In general, people with autism are honest and dependable; most are focused on their work and are rarely distracted by social activities or outside interests.
Quite a few have exceptional talents in areas such as computer coding, mathematics, music, drafting, organizing, and visual arts. While it can be tough for autistic adults to set up and manage their own space and schedules, many are outstanding bosses and employees.
Some corporations have started to recognize the value of actively recruiting and hiring autistic individuals; a few include:
- Freddie Mac
Hurdles to Independence
All 2-year-olds throw tantrums. All teens have “issues.” As a result, autistic kids and teens often get a bit of a break: after all, they’re just kids.
But once you’re an adult, you’re expected to put away your emotional challenges, tuck in your shirt, and act like a grown-up.
Grown-ups in modern-day America are expected to independently manage time and money, run a home, find and hold a job, manage social interactions at work and in the community, find friends and romance, save for a rainy day, cook an omelet, and raise kids.
Then there’s the problem of handling the constant onslaught of sound, information, interaction, and visual stimulation that’s part and parcel of being alive today.
People with autism find many of these expectations impossible to fulfill. Autism entails deficits in speech and nonverbal communication, executive functioning, and social interaction. It also entails hyper- or hypo sensitivity to sound, light, smells, tastes, and touch.11
It may make it harder to find and keep friends or romantic partners. It may make it almost impossible to land and keep a job that requires a high level of social or planning skills.
It may also mean that living independently while managing all the demands of daily life is simply too challenging.1
Very few adults with autism are partnered, live independently, and work full-time in fulfilling jobs, comparing poorly to adults with other disabilities. Additionally, those who do attain these measures of success may do so more than a decade after their peers in the general population.12
According to the Autism Society: “In June 2014, only 19.3 percent of people with disabilities in the U.S. were participating in the labor force — working or seeking work. Of those, 12.9 percent were unemployed, meaning only 16.8 percent of the population with disabilities was employed.”
Growing up with autism
The relative lack of information for and about adults on the autism spectrum leaves many parents or guardians suddenly at a loss when their child—now a young adult—reaches the magical age of majority.
This is because, at the age of majority, people with autism suddenly lose their right to services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and enter the much less open world of adult services.
While the law requires schools to provide “free and appropriate education” to all children, there is no such requirement for adults. As a result, funding and support for adults may or may not be available at any given time.
We’re used to the fact that information about autism centers around children, but the majority of the time someone experiences the condition is in adulthood. While many adults with autism live comfortable and productive lives, they may still have difficulty in situations that require social interaction or exposure to certain sounds, lights, and smells.
Whether high-functioning or severely autistic, adults with autism must work harder than their typical peers to enjoy a fulfilling life. To succeed, they – like everyone else – need friendship, support and opportunities to work and play in an acceptable social setting. Even though funding attempts are increasing, they cannot always rely on tax-funded programs. This means that the needs of adults with autism must be met by their families and people in their communities who wish them well, believe in their abilities and will take steps to improve their quality of life.
Lisa Jo Rudy / March 2022/ Verywell Health Magazine, SUA