Understanding the signs of autism: a comprehensive guide

Explore the signs of autism and how to get support.

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Page medically reviewed by Stephanie Halfyard, CBT therapist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester, in May 2024.

In the UK, it’s estimated that just over 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, amounting to more than 700,000 people across the nation (source). When you factor in their families, this means that autism touches the lives of millions of people every day.

Knowing how to spot the signs of autism can help people to reach out to a specialist, get a diagnosis and access any additional support they need, making a positive difference to their lives.

Identifying the signs and symptoms of autism

Understanding the signs and characteristics of autism is important for early recognition and support. These signs can vary widely across different stages of an autistic person’s life, from infancy through to adulthood.

  • Limited or no eye contact
  • Not responding to their name by the age of 6 months
  • Using limited or no speech after the age of 2
  • Not smiling when other people smile at them
  • Struggling with physical contact from parents and other relatives
  • Spending a lot of time playing alone and/or only playing with a particular part of a toy, such as the wheel of a toy car
  • Engaging in repetitive movements such as flapping their hands, pacing, or rocking backwards and forwards
  • Differences in social interactions - challenges when it comes to making and keeping friendships, and adhering to social 'rules' like taking turns
  • Diverse learning styles at school - challenges with maintaining attention or understanding instructions
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviours, like lining up toys or repeating certain phrases over and over again
  • Having unique responses to sensory stimuli, such as being sensitive to certain sounds or textures, or seeking out intense sensory experiences
  • Preferring routines and predictability, and becoming upset if there are changes to their usual routine or environment
  • Challenges in understanding and expressing emotions, such as not being able to express joy or sadness appropriately
  • Focusing intensely on specific topics or objects that interest them
  • Challenges with eating, due to being sensitive to certain food textures, having rituals with food, or wanting to eat the same thing over and over again. This can lead to conditions such as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) which commonly co-occurs with autism
  • Experience challenges when it comes to interpreting social cues and expressing emotions appropriately. This has the potential to cause issues in relationships
  • Process language and communication more literally. For example, they may experience challenges with interpreting things like sarcasm, non-verbal cues and figures of speech
  • Have a preference for predictability and routine, and become unsettled if there are changes to their routine
  • Have a different understanding of social hierarchies or expectations in various settings, such as at work or social gatherings
  • Have a tendency to speak bluntly or without a ‘filter’, which can sometimes be viewed as inappropriate or tactless
  • Have additional mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, ARFID or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can co-occur alongside autism

It’s important to understand that autistic people also have a wide range of unique strengths and abilities, which can sometimes be overlooked or overshadowed by the perceived challenges they face. These strengths can be in lots of different areas, including their cognitive abilities, creativity, attention to detail and unique perspectives.

Lots of autistic people have exceptional skills in areas such as mathematics, music, art, computer programming and problem-solving. Their ability to focus intensely on specific topics or tasks can lead to remarkable achievements and contributions in their fields of interest. In addition, autistic people often have a strong sense of integrity, honesty and loyalty in their relationships, along with a passion for justice and fairness.

Recognising and harnessing these strengths is essential in order to help autistic people to succeed and thrive in all areas of their life.

Learn more about specific symptoms girls and boys can experience:

Variability in autism characteristics

The signs of autism can vary significantly, not only from one person to another, but also within the same person over the course of their life. This variability is influenced by a number of factors:

  • Developmental stages – autism signs can change as people transition from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. For example, social differences may become more obvious as people navigate the complex social dynamics of adolescence, or the social hierarchy of a workplace
  • Individual neurodiversity – every autistic person has a unique neurological make-up, which influences the characteristics they display. This neurodiversity contributes to the wide range of abilities and challenges that can be seen in people on the autism spectrum
  • Environmental influences – changes to an autistic person’s environment, such as changing schools or moving house, can impact their behaviour. Stressful or unfamiliar situations can make certain autism traits worse or more pronounced, while supportive environments can help autistic people to thrive
  • Co-occurring conditions – autistic people might have co-occurring challenges such as AFRID, anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing issues or a learning disability. The presence of these additional concerns can influence what the signs of autism look like in different people

Recognising the variability in autism characteristics helps us to provide personalised care and support. Every autistic person needs a tailored approach to support, based on their specific needs and strengths. However, the diverse presentation of autism can also lead to challenges in making accurate diagnoses and developing effective treatment plans. By recognising and embracing the variability of autism, we can better support people on the autism spectrum to reach their full potential.

Online autism tests

The AQ-10 is a quick questionnaire that people can complete on behalf of themselves or a child/young person. It’s a simple screening tool that indicates whether the person might benefit from receiving a diagnostic assessment for autism.

The AQ-10 is a self-report questionnaire that has three versions. You can click on the relevant link below to take the test for yourself or your child:

What to do if you notice the signs of autism

If you think that you or someone you know might be showing the signs of autism, it’s important to take proactive steps so you can understand and address the situation effectively.

You could start by taking an online autism test. This initial self-assessment tool can be a useful first step, helping to provide some insights into the potential signs of autism, and enabling you to gauge how likely it is that you’re on the autism spectrum.

If this initial screening tool suggests that you might be showing some of the key traits of autism, it’s important to consider reaching out for a private autism assessment for a more detailed evaluation. Our experts are here to guide you through the diagnosis process. We have a wealth of experience in autism assessments and diagnoses, and can provide you with personalised support and advice. We use reliable and validated autism assessment tools, and can offer access to ongoing support following your diagnosis, if this is something you’d benefit from.

For more information on Priory’s autism services, please visit our autism support page.

Autism assessments at Priory explained

Autism assessments for children and adults

We are able to offer fast access private autism assessments and diagnosis to those who are showing signs of autism.

  • Assessments conducted by experts specifically trained in autism
  • Complete therapeutic assessment route available for £1,950
  • Detailed and comprehensive outcome report provided
  • Discussion of next steps and additional support if required
  • No formal GP referral necessary

FAQs

Discover some commonly asked questions about autism and it's characteristics.

How do autism signs and symptoms change with age?

As autistic people get older, some of the signs of autism can change. This may be down to:

  • Improved coping mechanisms – many autistic people develop strategies to help them to navigate social situations and manage sensory sensitivities
  • Increased ability to ‘mask’ their symptoms – some people become good at concealing their autism traits in certain contexts, which can make diagnosis more challenging

While some autistic people can thrive independently, others may need ongoing support to help them to navigate daily life.

Can adults show new symptoms of autism?

It’s possible for adults to show new signs of autism, especially if they’re experiencing change, stress, burnout or co-occurring mental health challenges. New symptoms might include:

  • Increased social anxiety - this could be due to meeting new people and being in more social environments as you get older
  • Challenges when it comes to maintaining employment and performing well at work - this could be because of issues like sensory sensitivities, social communication and a need for routine, which can get in the way of productivity and wellbeing at work
  • Increased masking - as autistic adults try to meet social expectations and navigate professional settings, they may feel as though they need to ‘mask’ their characteristics, which can lead to stress and exhaustion
  • Relationship problems - autistic adults may experience challenges in their relationships. This is because adult relationships tend to have increased expectations for social reciprocity, communication and interaction

What are common misconceptions about autism symptoms?

Common misconceptions about autism include:

  • All autistic people are alike – autism is a spectrum condition, meaning that signs and symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Not everyone with autism will have the same characteristics, and not everyone’s autistic traits will be the same severity
  • Autism is a childhood condition – while autism is typically diagnosed in childhood, it’s a lifelong condition. The signs of autism may change and evolve over time, but autism continues to impact people into adulthood
  • Autism is solely a social communication disorder – while challenges in communication and social interaction can be common in autism, it also has a range of other signs. These include sensory sensitivities, repetitive behaviours and a need for routine
  • Autism is caused by bad parenting or vaccines – these are myths with no scientific evidence. Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition and may have a number of genetic and environmental influences
  • Autistic people lack empathy – while some autistic people find it challenging to express empathy in ways that neurotypical people do, they are still very much capable of experiencing and expressing emotions. They just feel and express emotions in different ways

Understanding and dispelling these misconceptions is crucial to promote acceptance, support and inclusion for autistic people.

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