Thanks to awareness efforts about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), diagnoses of this condition among children have been increasing in recent years.
One such awareness-raising effort is precisely the proclamation of World Autism Awareness Day, which is celebrated on April 2.
According to a study published in the medical journal autism spectrum Research (2022), one in every 100 children worldwide is currently diagnosed with ASD. The World Health Organization (WHO) even considers this to be an average number, taking into account that other controlled studies could present higher figures.
Many adults may also have an autism spectrum disorder. But, unlike children, only recently have doctors begun to diagnose it in older children.
This is partially due to the fact that autism was only recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the ultimate standard for identifying mental illnesses in the United States, according to a Cleveland Clinic study. When autism was first introduced to the DSM in 1980, it was only identified as a disorder affecting kids.
The communication problems that accompany ASD are often evident and severe in childhood, so the condition can be detected at school or in their home environments. This means that when these signs are not severe, in adolescence and into adulthood ASD can be more difficult to identify.
Autism spectrum: How do I know if I am autistic?
The cases that may go unnoticed are those with mild ASD, explains Dr. Susana Mata Iturralde, master in Cognitive Neuroscience and Specific Educational Needs and specialist in Intellectual Diagnosis, who illustrates the signs of the spectrum in an undiagnosed adult:
- It may be that in childhood they were characterized by not being sociable, avoided interacting with other children, but they have a language and cognitive development appropriate for their age.
- In many cases, they are usually very good in areas such as mathematics, technology, photographic memory. The taste for these branches is due to the fact that their results are always accurate and predictable.
- These types of people shy away from anything that requires greater flexibility or unpredictable situations.
- Some are thematic in cleanliness and order.
- They prefer routines, they hate change.
- They keep the same topics of conversation or interest, not caring if the other person gets bored listening to them.
- They tend to feel strange, because they do not manage to have good interpersonal relationships and do not understand why.
- They often have problems with empathy and make mistakes, such as saying things that may offend others, unintentionally.
- Sometimes, they don’t maintain eye contact when talking to others or dodge the gaze.
- They have trouble understanding a certain level of jokes that includes sarcasm or figurative sense.
- Their relationship difficulties create anxiety, worry and even depression in the person.
According to a report by the UK’s National Health Service, autism can sometimes be different in women and men. They also seem to cope better with social situations, show fewer signs of repetitive behavior, and tend to be quieter to hide their feelings.
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If the above conditions are influencing their quality of life, their interpersonal relationships (friends, relatives, partner), work or studies, the person should seek help from a professional in psychology to be evaluated and rule out whether they have ASD or any other disorder or condition.
According to Susana Mata, who studied the validation of ASD early detection tools for her doctoral thesis with the advice of the University of Valencia, it is necessary that the professional not only diagnoses the adult, but also evaluates cognitive, and emotional aspects, level of anxiety, mood, self-assessment, personality, relationships with other people, and their functionality in various areas of life. (Spain).
In this evaluation it is necessary that you also involve your closest environment, your family, your partner, your friends, co-workers. Based on the results, the professional will be able to guide the adult on what type of care he or she requires.
Autism spectrum: Confusion of autism with other disorders
On the other hand, some people who were incorrectly diagnosed as children did not receive the proper ASD intervention.
According to Mata, in these situations, people’s shortcomings in vocal and nonverbal communication, autonomy, repetitive behaviors, and high irritability towards change will be well known.
It refers to those who were considered children with moderate or severe intellectual disability. The specialist clarifies that ASD can be confused with other neurodevelopmental disorders such as communication disorders, especially pragmatic disorders, intellectual disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That is why he emphasizes the importance of being evaluated by a certified and experienced professional.
Autism spectrum disorder and early diagnosis
Screening for ASD begins with developmental surveillance for all children younger than 36 months, without exception. Without developmental monitoring programs, it cannot be identified in time and disruptive behaviors can increase impairing the development of children and their subsequent functionality in school and other social spaces.
Because of increased awareness of the condition, early childhood and basic education instructors are better equipped to identify children who may have ASD. But because there was less understanding in the past, many children went undiagnosed and are now adults who are seen as strangers, particularly because they struggle with interpersonal relationships, according to researcher Mata. Now, it ought to be discovered before the education stage.
The sooner, the better. This is because the first years of life is a period with high neuronal plasticity, which combined with adequate early intervention can significantly improve the development of the child. Even reduce those behaviors associated with the disorder.