Mention the word “autism” in conversation and many will likely assume you are referring to autistic children. This notion is not surprising. After all, autism in children seems to be discussed more these days for various reasons.
But what about adults with autism? This question often falls between the sheets in the general autism conversation. The fact is that autism itself does not change with age; most of the disorder’s core deficits endure through puberty and into adulthood.
“The deficits (between both autistic children and adults) are essentially the same,” said Dr. Michael Murray of the Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training (ASERT) initiative. “The core deficit is processing social information; difficulty with socially interacting with people stays consistent throughout life.”
“Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism,” said Leslie Long, Vice President of Adult Services at Autism Speaks. “Core symptoms do not change, but people have to learn how to compensate for environmental changes as they get older.”
But deficits become more noticeable as autistic young adults begin to adapt to the unpredictable professional and social demands of the “real” world; they begin to face external challenges unique to their disorder.
“With autism, as the individual gets older, their characteristics such as preservations, difficulty reading social cues and interactions as well as the expression of emotion become more noticeable than when that individual was much younger,” said Dr. Bernadette Cachara, a local psychologist. “As a child, many of their peers are also learning the art of social interactions; therefore, it may be less noticeable unless very extreme.”
Adapting to new social environments with their own requirements and expectations can be a daunting task for anyone. But for an individual with autism, the process begins with a crucial choice that will likely define his or her experience.
“Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword when you have a disability that may not be obvious,” Long said. “Some employers will discriminate (against autistic individuals) whether they realize they are being biased or not. So it becomes difficult for (an autistic) individual to choose between disclosing (his or her condition) and getting the support they need or hiding it without people knowing. That becomes an individualized choice.”
If an autistic individual chooses to make a workplace or social group aware of his or her condition, a whole new set of factors comes into play. Murray said that even though autism deficits generally remain the same with age, the increasing depth and expected perception of adult-on-adult interaction can create challenges absent from childhood.
“Social interactions with children are usually more rules based at a young age,” Murray said. “Our interactions as adults are far less rules bound and are much more hinged on social judgement, and judgement is much harder to teach than rules.”
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“If I am an autistic adult, I now have to go into a work environment that has different social requirements than at school or in a recreational group,” Long said. “It depends on whether or not social reciprocity may have not been required when (the autistic adults) were younger. But hopefully they got to practice social and behavioral requirements when they younger.”
Additionally, the impact of common autism deficits can grow much more severe based on the demands and expectations of an adult-oriented environment.
“We are required to execute our skills more efficiently as an adult,” Murray said. “If you do something wrong as a child, you might get a detention. If you do something wrong as an adult, it could cost you your job. For someone with autism, the consequences become much more serious.”
Murray said that these stressors can be linked to high rates of depression and anxiety amongst autistic adults.
“As an adult, (an autistic individual) tends to become more isolated from their social world, as the interactions just become too difficult and stressful for them,” Cachara said. “We tend to see a decrease in their motivation to interact, as it requires so much mental energy. We see that they tend to isolate themselves from others.”
But what can be done to manage these issues? According to Long, a large part of the task lies with the people autistic adults work or engage with.
“There are reasonable accommodations in the workforce,” Long said. “Some could be off site; it could be reminders from paid staff or a job coach or reminders on an iPad — reminders to take breaks or to put lunch in the fridge. On the job it could be something like putting reminders on a computer or having a mentor that you work with to tell you if you are talking too loud or if you are frustrated with a task.
Long added, “it could also be small changes like changing a lamp or light bulb if (an autistic individual) is sensitive to light or allowing them to listen to calming music with headphones while working. There are so many ways to support someone (with autism) that it should not be a major obstacle.”
Long said that, in order to help make life easier for autistic adults, people must understand that the adult autism demographic is one based heavily on individualized strengths and weaknesses.
“There are a lot of (autistic) people in IT jobs who have these wonderful doors opening for them because they happen to be tech savvy,” Long said. “And that is great, but there is a whole demographic of other (autistic adults) who need to start at entry level jobs or lower level jobs. We can’t forget that (the adult autism demographic) is a whole spectrum of different skills.”