The real signs of autism in adults | My Vanderbilt Health

Misinformation on TikTok could lead thousands of young adults to believe they have autism spectrum disorder when they really don’t. Here’s what to know about autism symptoms in adults. On the one hand, social media has brought important and much-needed attention to mental health disorders. On the other hand, it’s circulating misinformation about a number of conditions, namely autism spectrum disorder. So much was detected, in fact, that researchers decided to analyze just how much of the autism content on TikTok, the world’s most popular social media platform, was inaccurate. Plenty, as it turns out. The researchers determined that 32% of the information about autism swirling on TikTok is misleading, and another 40% of it is flat-out false. The researchers determined that 32% of the information about autism swirling on TikTok is misleading, and another 40% of it is flat-out false. That means just over a quarter of autism content on the platform is true, according to the study published in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders . One particularly problematic trend is users cherry-picking autism symptoms in adults they feel they identify with and then self-diagnosing autism spectrum disorder. For example, one sign of autism in adults is “feeling frequently confused or overwhelmed.” And so some users are professing to have autism because they experience that one symptom. But autism can’t be diagnosed based on one, or even a handful, of symptoms alone. A diagnosis requires a thorough evaluation and history by a trained professional. “In order to meet criteria for really just about any mental health condition, there has to be impairment and generally within more than one setting,” says Dr. Blythe Corbett, a psychologist with Vanderbilt Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “So even though someone might struggle to engage with others periodically in social settings, that doesn’t mean by itself that would warrant a diagnosis. There needs to be a consistent pattern of difficulty meeting criteria across a number of different domains.” The harms of misdiagnosis Incorrectly self-diagnosing autism spectrum disorder may sound harmless, but it’s concerning for a couple of important reasons. “If people self-diagnose and they don’t really have the disorder, it can minimize the struggle and the impact the people who do meet criteria for the diagnosis experience on a daily basis.” First, there is already a shortfall of resources for adults living with autism spectrum disorder. When people who don’t truly need these resources use them, that means fewer resources for people who do need them. “There are resources out there, but they’re still pretty limited, especially for adults,” Corbett says. “So if what little support is already there is going to people who actually don’t really meet the criteria, that is limiting the resources even more.” Second, falsely claiming to have autism can diminish the struggles people who actually have autism face. “Having autism spectrum disorder is very challenging. It’s very difficult,” Corbett says. “If people self-diagnose and they don’t really have the disorder, it can minimize the struggle and the impact the people who do meet criteria for the diagnosis experience on a daily basis.” Autism symptoms in adults Because autism is a developmental disorder, it is most frequently diagnosed in children ages 4 to 5. It is possible for autism to go undetected until later in life, but that is not the norm. “Some folks may be able to camouflage or mask their symptoms for many years until the social world just becomes too complex for them,” Corbett says. “Still, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder and so it wouldn’t suddenly appear in adulthood. There would have to be a history of difficulty since childhood.” Autism symptoms in adults may include: Difficulty interpreting facial expressions and body language Unintentionally coming off as blunt or rude Difficulty forging relationships Taking things literally (not understanding sarcasm) Having a strong preference for routine and difficulty adapting to changes Showing interest in and only wanting to talk about a few particular subjects/interests Avoiding eye contact Being highly sensitive to noise, light, taste, smell or touch Conversely, being less sensitive to noise, light, taste, smell or touch Who can diagnose autism in adults Adults who think they may have undiagnosed autism can request an evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist. Adults who think they may have undiagnosed autism can request an evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist. That person will take a full history, perform an evaluation and then confirm their diagnosis using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. “It’s a gold-standard instrument that allows us to more definitively diagnose autism in children and adults,” Corbett says. From there, an expert can work with you to develop a treatment plan and refer you to resources, if necessary. So while social media may be a convenient place to hear about autism, meeting with an expert is necessary to diagnose the condition and guide you from there.

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