This page has been medically reviewed by Stephen Bradford, Director of Clinical Services and Neurodiversity Lead
Autism is known as a ‘spectrum condition’ because its characteristics can range in severity. Some people’s autistic traits aren’t severe enough to affect their ability to function in day-to-day life – this was previously known by some people as ‘high functioning autism’. However, other people have severe autism, which is a lot more challenging and can mean that they need daily support.
Usually, autistic traits become apparent in childhood, although some people don’t receive an autism diagnosis until adulthood. Both adults and children on the autism spectrum can experience difficulties or differences in:
- Communication and the nuances of language
- Behaviours (these can often be repetitive or restrictive)
- Speech (some autistic people are non-verbal)
- Social skills and interacting with others
- Processing sensory information
While everyone with autism may share some of the same characteristics, it’s important to understand that it affects everyone differently. No two people on the autism spectrum will have the same traits or experiences - they might just need different levels of support. In addition, it’s important to note that while some autistic people can experience difficulties in the above areas, others can excel and demonstrate great talent in these areas.
Symptoms of high-functioning autism in adults
High-functioning autism (which was once known as Asperger syndrome), tends to have traits that are much more subtle than other, more severe forms of autism. For this reason, people might not be diagnosed with high-functioning autism until adolescence or adulthood, as the impact of these symptoms on their day-to-day life is often not as extreme.
Symptoms of high-functioning autism include:
- Fixation on certain topics or ideas – fixating on certain topics during conversations, extensively researching certain things that interest you, or playing the same piece of music over and over again
- Your habits or manner when speaking may seem ‘odd’, ‘eccentric’ or simply ‘different’ to other people. This might be because you fixate on certain topics or don’t always follow the ‘rules’ of conversations e.g. you might interrupt people when they’re speaking
- Coming across as shy, awkward or ‘quirky’ when socialising with other people
- Struggling to process certain sensory information. For example, you might feel uncomfortable or stressed when you’re in a noisy crowd, or you might find the background music in a shop or a restaurant to be distracting or unbearably loud
- You prefer to have a routine or a plan and become frustrated when this changes
- Emotional sensitivity – becoming frustrated or upset more easily than people who don’t have autism
Universal signs of autism
As well as the above, some of the more general characteristics associated with autism can include difficulties with:
- Struggling to start a conversation and keep it going
- Appearing to talk ‘at’, rather than ‘with’, other people
- Speaking with a monotonous and ‘flat’ tone, or an unusual rhythm
Communicating and interacting with other people:
- Experiencing difficulties with acts of intimacy such as cuddling, particularly when this is initiated by others
- Finding it difficult to understand the subtleties of language, such as figures of speech, irony, jokes, metaphors and sarcasm
- Struggling to recognise other people’s intentions or emotions
- Being uninterested in other people’s interests or achievements
- Not using non-verbal gestures such as facial expressions to communicate with others, or using inappropriate facial expressions that don’t match what you’re saying
- Struggling to hold eye contact
- Finding it difficult to interact with others and form friendships, even if you want to make friends
- Finding it difficult to read the context of a social situation, such as speaking more formally to your boss at work and more informally when talking to your family or loved ones
- Appearing to be blunt, rude or inappropriate to other people
- Experiencing little enjoyment from activities that the majority of other people seem to enjoy
- Struggling to understand other people’s need for personal space, or not wanting other people to enter your own personal space
- Having some repetitive behaviours such as flicking your fingers or rocking
- Finding it difficult to regulate your emotions in certain situations. For example, you might react angrily and aggressively in response to things that wouldn’t tend to bother someone without autism
- Experiencing the symptoms of anxiety in situations that aren’t predictable or that you can’t control
You might also have clear differences in your cognitive abilities than people without autism. Autism affects people at all levels of intelligence but can cause differences in the type of intelligence and abilities that an individual has. Non-verbal skills tend to be much stronger than verbal skills in autistic people, and they often perform better on visual and memory tasks as opposed to abstract thinking or symbolic activities.
In addition, autistic people can also have varying IQs, depending on where they are on the spectrum. Individuals with less severe autism often have above average IQs, whereas people with more severe autism tend to have below average IQs.
Plus, some autistic people are thought to have what is known as ‘savant’ abilities, which include extraordinary feats such as being able to multiply large numbers in their head, or memorise and play a complex piece of music after hearing it once.
A specialist would use an official questionnaire to begin the diagnosis of a patient with suspected autism. Such questionnaires include:
- The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ questionnaire for autism diagnosis
- The Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disorders (DISCO)
- The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)
The use of tools in autism diagnosis should be accompanied by information from other sources, particularly a detailed history from family, whenever possible.
Severe autism symptoms
Someone with severe autism will likely require support to help them function on a daily basis. The traits associated with severe autism are profound and can cause a number of challenges.
- Extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli, leading to sensory overload
- Non-verbal – being unable to speak
- Appear not to notice other people or the environment around them
- Low to very low IQs
- Uncontrollable repetitive behaviours such as rocking backwards and forwards, flapping of arms, or making loud unintelligible noises over and over again. However, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether this is due to a person’s autism or potentially due to other factors such as a learning disability, sensory issues, or something that the individual is unable to communicate
- Injuring themselves on purpose e.g. by banging their head against a wall
- Demonstrating aggressive behaviour towards others e.g. biting or hitting caregivers
- Wandering off and getting lost
- Experiencing autism ‘meltdowns’, whereby the person becomes so emotionally overwhelmed or overloaded with sensory information they’re unable to control their behaviour
Autism and mental health
Autism itself isn’t a mental health condition. It just means that you think, feel and experience the world around you differently. However, it’s important to understand that autistic people might be more prone to developing mental health or other conditions such as anxiety and depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD), Tourette’s syndrome and sleep disorders.
Managing autism traits
Depending on the severity of your autism, there may be a number of things you can do to help you manage the characteristics of your condition:
- Practise mindfulness, deep breathing or meditation to help you cope if you’re ever feeling anxious or upset
- Look after yourself physically – try to get enough sleep at night, eat healthily and exercise
- Talk about how you’re feeling with someone who cares about you, and let them know how they can help you
- Look for support groups so you can connect with other people who know how you feel
Professional autism support
If you ever feel as though you need additional support to help manage your autism, it’s important to reach out to a professional.
At Priory, we are able to provide autism assessments as well as being able to provide a range of services for adults and young people with mild to severe autism. We can support more severe presentations through our Priory Adult Care autism services and also offer packages of support for individuals with less severe forms of autism.
Ultimately, autism is a lifelong condition and there is no cure. However, with the right support, many autistic people can live active and fulfilling lives, in which their autistic traits are positive contributing factors.
For more information about the mental health services that Priory offer, download our brochure.Get our brochure