“What are the Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder,
and How can I Find Out if I am on the Spectrum?”
Many adults with social and communication challenges wonder if they might have Asperger’s syndrome or be somewhere on the autism spectrum. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) outlines the diagnostic criteria for receiving a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Asperger’s syndrome is no longer identified as a separate disorder in the DSM-5, but many adults who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s continue to use the label, and it is still a category in other countries including the United Kingdom. Those who believe they might have Asperger’s may meet diagnostic criteria for ASD without accompanying intellectual disability or language impairment.
If you believe you have ASD and it is important to have a diagnosis confirming this, seek out a clinical psychologist or neurologist who specializes in autism assessment. On the other hand, if you are curious and wonder if ASD might answer questions you have had about yourself, but you do not need a formal diagnosis, many adults do their own research and “self-diagnose.” Self-diagnosis is not useful for those seeking services or workplace accommodations. It could be appropriate for someone who just wants to understand themselves better, and who want their friends and family to understand why they experience things differently.
For those who are simply looking for answers to their own questions about ASD, I have listed the main characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (A through D) and how these may show up in your life, if you are on the spectrum.
“Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction…”
- For you, this may mean that you have difficulty with back-and-forth conversation or social chit-chat. Perhaps you don’t find social chatting to be interesting, or perhaps people jump around to different topics too quickly, or perhaps you sometimes miss a person’s intent. You might avoid social situations that involve making small talk, or you might engage in it but feel stressful about it, or feel that you have somehow blundered or been misunderstood.
- It could also mean difficulties with nonverbal communication. As a child, did adults often tell you, “Look at me,” or have to try hard to get your attention? Do people tell you that you don’t show a lot of facial expression? Are you awkward when gesturing, or you just don’t “talk with your hands” the way others frequently do? Have you been told that you are standing too close, or too far away? Do you misunderstand others’ facial expressions or tone and have trouble telling whether someone is being sarcastic or serious?
- Perhaps you have always had trouble making friends or joining into group activities, or you just haven’t been interested in making friends.
“Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities…”
- This may mean pacing or walking in circles. It may mean moving your hands or body in ways that are calming or comforting to you but which other people may find unusual, such as waving your hands, rocking, bouncing, or repetitively tapping objects. It could also mean saying words or phrases out of context, such as quoting a favorite book or movie, as a way of communicating or just because you enjoy the sound or feel of the phrases or find them of comfort when under stress.
- It could mean that you are comforted by routine and having things happen as expected, and may be distressed when things are changed or when something unexpected occurs or familiar objects are rearranged.
- Perhaps you have interests which are very important to you, but which are not necessarily shared by other people in your age group. Your interests may be common to many, such as an interest in history or science fiction, but the intensity of your fascination with the subject may be greater than other people’s. On the other hand, you may have a very specific interest that other people don’t share, such as vacuum cleaners, traffic signs, or weather formations, or collecting things few people consider collectable.
- You might be extremely over-reactive to sensory stimulation, such as being bothered by sounds, or intense colors or patterns, or common odors, textures, or tastes. On the other hand, there may be sensory experiences you seek out, such as turning the volume up very high, or closely inspecting objects, or sniffing, touching or tasting many things, such that other people find it unusual.
“Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies later in life.)”
- Perhaps you received special education services in school for another learning disability instead of autism, but you realize now that your problems in school were most likely related to characteristics of autism not recognized at the time.
- You may be intelligent and were able to do well academically in school, so that your social challenges on the playground and in unstructured situations were not noticed by your teachers, or were not recognized as possibly due to autism.
- If you had good behavior and did not get into trouble, that is another reason symptoms of autism may not have come to the school’s attention.
- It may be that you were very good at pretending to fit in even when you felt like an outsider, that skill may have masked autistic-like behaviors. Also, you may have had a friend who looked out for you and smoothed the way for you to engage with other children.
“Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.”
- As an adult, do you find it difficult to make friends, socialize with neighbors or colleagues at work, or date? Are you unemployed or underemployed due to social challenges, or do you stay at a new job for only a short time? Do you have trouble with family members misunderstanding your situation or feelings? Do you have trouble maintaining a good relationship with relatives or friends from school? If you are or have been in a romantic relationship, and there is an argument or disagreement, are you able to mend the problem and continue the relationship, or are relationships brief due to communication or other difficulties? Do sensory issues keep you from going certain places or being with certain people, such as those who wear too much perfume or cologne?
Does this sound like you, or someone in your life who has been looking for answers about the autism spectrum? I hope these questions are helpful to you in examining your life and your relationships, and in your own path toward personal growth and development. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or email me at DrWendy@pipsforautism.com.