Over the last decade, the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder has skyrocketed, going from one in every 150 children to one in every 68 children. There are a number of theories as to why the number of autistic children has increased so dramatically, ranging from the effects of GMOs to vaccines (none of which have been conclusively proven by scientific research), but one theory has nothing to do with any environmental factors. In short, some claim that the increase in autism diagnoses is due in large part to the fact that doctors are now actively screening for the disorder, when even just 20 years ago, screening was not a part of the average well-child visit.
One fact that supports this notion of increased screening leading to increased diagnoses is that more adults than ever before are being diagnosed on the spectrum. Not only do as many as 50,000 children who have ASD turn 18 each year, thousands of adults, who may have struggled as children, are newly diagnosed — some of whom are well into their 60s.
Challenges in Diagnosing Adult Autism
Thanks to the widespread public health education programs, routine health care for young children and better parent awareness, most parents are aware of the signs of autism in young children, or at least know when to talk to a doctor about their concerns.
For adults, though, the signs of autism haven’t always been so clear cut. Especially among older adults, the hallmarks of autism — social difficulties, communication difficulties, the emphasis on repetitive behavior and routines, for example — have often been dismissed as “quirks,” or diagnosed as other psychological or emotional disorders. The symptoms of autism can be very similar to those of ADHD, personality disorders and schizophrenia. Not only does this present challenges in terms of diagnosis, it also affects treatment. Although some medications used to treat schizophrenia in adults have been proven helpful in managing some of the mood issues in autistic children, with a more accurate diagnosis the treatment plan can include additional therapies.
How Autism Is Diagnosed in Adults
In late 2013, the Karolinska Institutet revealed that it had developed a new screening and diagnostic tool to help diagnose ASD in adults and more effectively distinguish ASD from other psychological disorders. The new tool, known as the RAADS-14, requires patients to answer 14 questions rating their experiences with social anxiety, mentalization difficulties and sensory oversensitivity, the three major challenge areas among those with ASD. The tool requires the patient to assess when the challenge began and whether they are still present in adulthood. Each answer has a point value, with a maximum of 42 points for the entire exam.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet tested the RAADS-14 tool with adults who had already been diagnosed with ASD, as well as adults with other mental health diagnoses (including ADHD and schizophrenia) and healthy adults. On average, the adults with ASD scored 32 points on the tool, while healthy adults scored an average of three, ADHD patients scored an 11 and other disorders scored a 13. Doctors are enthusiastic about these results, as they believe it will now be easier to more effectively diagnose and treat ASD in adults.
Are You Struggling?
The growing awareness of adults being diagnosed with autism means that the number of people seeking help for their challenges is increasing. Still, many people resist getting help for a number of reasons. Some fear the stigma that can come with an autism diagnosis, while others are concerned about the costs that can come from the treatment and management of symptoms.
Still, it’s important for anyone struggling with potential symptoms of autism to seek help, as a diagnosis can help them receive services, including therapies and treatments, that will allow them to more effectively function at home, work and school.
Adults with ASD have difficulty in three main areas: social communication, social interaction and social imagination, that is, difficulty understanding others’ thoughts and feelings or having difficulty adjusting to change. Many people face challenges in these areas — for example, almost everyone has experienced some form of social anxiety at one point or another — but people with ASD have challenges in all of them. ASD may also include sensory issues (such as aversions to particular sounds or textures), obsessive behaviors, adherence to routines and repetitive behaviors like rocking or hand clapping.
In many cases, ASD is diagnosed by mental health professionals, usually in conjunction with a general practitioner. While there is no “cure” for the condition, many people find that simply having the diagnosis helps them feel better, as it provides an explanation for the behaviors and problems that have plagued them most of their lives. Having an ASD diagnosis also allows adults to get support, not only from friends and family, but from an active and growing community of adult ASD patients. As awareness grows, so does the availability of support and services, giving many adults the opportunity to live “normally” for the first time in their lives.
Thanks to improved screening, most children with autism will be diagnosed long before they reached adulthood. But for those who have struggled for decades, the improved diagnostic tools and increased awareness is a welcome relief. If you are living with symptoms of autism, there’s no need to struggle alone anymore.