Individuals with Autism often face challenges in adulthood, despite their early diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms of Autism begin building at an early age, but adults with Autism frequently lack support systems to guide them through the complexities of social interaction. Limited communication skills, sensory overload, and spatial awareness can make activities such as employment difficult for autistic adults. Despite this adversity, many autistic adults excel in careers that directly address these weaknesses or provide opportunities for creativity.
More Common Than You Think
Autism is one of the most common developmental disabilities; 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with Autism. It was previously believed that there were few treatments available to improve the condition once children reached adolescence. Still, recent research suggests that specific therapies used during childhood could improve life outcomes for adults.
However, these therapies are often expensive and out of reach for many families.
Many autistic adults, unless they had access to the early treatments on which recently published research is based, do not have access to family support systems or appropriate medical care. As a result of diminished familial support, only 15% of all autistic adults live independently or semi-independently. For this reason, Autism must be diagnosed at an early age so that families can prepare for the needs of their children once they become adults. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that just because an individual “looks fine” doesn’t mean he isn’t on the spectrum; social demands change drastically in adulthood compared to adolescence. The most common signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are social withdrawal, lack of eye contact, and limited communication skills.
If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism
Yet these characteristics don’t define Autism; they’re merely symptoms. It’s important to remember that “the outward behaviors associated with autism can be very different depending on the type of ASD an individual has,” so every person diagnosed with Autism will have his own specific set of needs based upon his diagnosis. For example, some children might become obsessed with a particular topic or interest while others may not demonstrate special interests at all. The sensory overload common in autistic adults depends on the type of ASD the individual suffers from; for example, someone who exhibits higher-functioning Autism may not experience sensory overload at all, while people living with low-functioning Autism might feel overwhelmed in crowded, noisy spaces.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has categorized Autism into five types based upon their respective symptoms: Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Rett Syndrome, and Child Disintegrative Disorder. Of these five types of Autism Spectrum Disorders, the most common is ASD, characterized by impaired communication skills and social interaction. Symptoms vary among all individuals diagnosed with ASD; for example, some may become obsessed with a specific interest while others might not demonstrate any special interests at all.
For this reason, it is crucial to consider each person on an individual basis instead of merely diagnosing him “low functioning” or “high functioning” based upon his symptoms.
Low-functioning Autism is a term frequently used by laypeople to describe those with ASD. They have relatively impaired communication and social interaction skills and a tendency towards restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Those with low-functioning Autism are less likely to achieve complete independence from parents or caregivers than those with high-functioning Autism. Only 15% of autistic adults live independently or semi-independently. The remaining 85% must rely on family members for employment assistance and other daily activities such as cooking, cleaning, answering phones, etc.
In stark contrast to people with low-functioning Autism, the subset of adults is categorized as “high functioning.” Although laypeople widely use this term, it is inaccurate. It implies that all autistic individuals are alike, which is far from true. According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), there are five types of ASD: Autistic Disorder (AD), Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Rett’s Syndrome, and Child Disintegrative Syndrome (CD). All five types emphasize different symptoms but share the commonality of impaired communication skills and social interaction.
Although these characteristics don’t separate Autism into low or high functioning, they help differentiate one type of ASD from another. For example, someone with AD may experience sensory overload, whereas people with low-AD Autism may not. Likewise, those with AS are more likely to experience social withdrawal (common in low-functioning Autism) than high-AS autism individuals who may be outgoing and friendly. Finally, CD is typically diagnosed at a very young age making it difficult to determine whether or not they will suffer from sensory overload or lack thereof.
Since the symptoms associated with ASD impact every individual differently, there’s no accurate way of determining someone’s level of ability simply by looking at their outward behavior. For this reason, it is best to consider each person on an individual basis rather than generalizing them as either “low functioning” or “high functioning.” Although these terms do have some merit, they aren’t universally accepted for the reasons mentioned above.
But while the terminology used to describe people living with ASD is in question, it is time that we began paying attention to their needs and desires. Although this article focuses primarily on Autism in adulthood, understanding the characteristic features of each type will help to improve treatment for children at various stages of development. This will enable them to achieve their most tremendous possible potential without being limited by inaccurate diagnostic predictions.