Diagnosing autism in adults

The process of obtaining a diagnosis of autism for adults is different to that of diagnosing autism in children. The main reason for this is that, very often, this condition lies undiagnosed until later on in life.

Many adults pass through childhood without being diagnosed which is often due to insufficient knowledge or experience of autism at that time. There is certainly a greater awareness of autistic spectrum disorders than there used to be which may explain why there has been an increase in the number of reported cases.

Do I have an autistic spectrum disorder?

It might have been the case that adults recently diagnosed with autism were considered ’naughty’children when young or ’slow learners’ and left to their own devices.

But it is when these adults realise that they are different from other people in a variety of ways but are unable to put a name to their condition that a diagnosis becomes very important.

A diagnosis of autism is often a huge relief for someone who has wondered for many years why they are good at certain tasks but not others. Why they find it difficult to socialise with others or continue a conversation. Why they have a deep interest in facts and figures or know how the petrol combustion engine works in minute details.

It may also explain their behaviour to work colleagues, friends and family. Once these people understand what has been causing your ’different’ behaviour then they are likely (hopefully!) to be more tolerant and understanding towards you.

Obtaining a diagnosis of autism

If you are an adult who suspects that you have a form of autism then your next step is to obtain a diagnosis. But this can be more difficult than it seems.

It may be that some GP’s consider autism to be a disorder which only affects children or that children can be helped whereas it is too late for adults. They may misdiagnose your symptoms or refuse to take you seriously.

What is important is presenting your symptoms to your GP in such as way that he/she will take notice of these and refer you to a clinical psychologist.

But you need to be certain that this is right for you. Some people have only mild symptoms which do not affect their ability to hold down a job, raise a family and generally live an independent life. In these cases they prefer to make their own diagnosis and continue with the way they are living.

But there are others who exhibit more noticeable symptoms and would benefit from some of the services available to autistic people.

Weigh up the advantages and disadvantages before making a decision. If you feel that obtaining a professional diagnosis would benefit you then proceed with doing so.

Discussing autism with your GP

The process involves talking to your GP who will then refer you to a consultant psychologist/psychiatrist for an official diagnosis.

Arrange a consultation in which you only talk about this. Many people visit their GP with a particular complaint but then mention something else at the end of their consultation. But the problem with doing this is that it does not give your GP ample time to discuss this and give it the full attention it deserves.

Before you go to the surgery, make a note of any experiences you have had which were problematic such as entering into a conversation with others or understanding everyday colloquialism. Mention if you have difficulty in understanding body language or facial gestures.

Also note down if you have a particular interest or hobby which you are obsessive about or if you prefer to work with objects rather than people. If you find it hard to imagine what other people think or to sympathise with others then mention this as well.

Having examples of these makes it easier for your GP to understand your condition and if it fits the criteria for an autistic spectrum disorder.

If the GP rejects your arguments or refuses to discuss it further then ask him/her why or failing that, arrange a consultation with another GP.

Screening test for adults

There is a screening test for adults which have the same aims as the CHAT screening test for children in that it is designed to check for an autistic spectrum disorder.

It takes the form of a questionnaire which contains 11 questions which is completed by a health worker or GP. These questions include:

  • Does the person seek the company of other people?
  • Does the person seem to understand the feelings of others?
  • Does the person have an intense attachment to objects?

These are a few examples taken from the questionnaire. It is not a diagnostic tool per se but it is useful at enabling the GP to formulate a diagnosis along with evidence provided by the affected person.

It is scored by means of choosing the frequency of the behaviours listed in the questionnaire. This scoring system is:

  • Frequent
  • Sometimes
  • Rarely/never

Your GP will take this and other aspects into account when deciding upon a diagnosis.

If the test shows that you have an autistic spectrum disorder then the next step is up to you. You can decide to continue in the way you have been living if this is not causing you any problems. If you work, pay taxes, have a family and function in the same way as anyone else then you can choose to do nothing.

But if you have experienced problems then you have a choice of treatment options or ’interventions’ which can help to make life that bit easier.

These are discussed further in our living with autism section.

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