What Are the Signs of Asperger's in Adults?

Reviewed on 12/18/2020

What is Asperger's syndrome?

Adults diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome often have trouble with social interactions. They also have obsessive interests and enjoy repetitive activities.
Adults diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome often have trouble with social interactions. They also have obsessive interests and enjoy repetitive activities.

Asperger's syndrome is a diagnosis that was once given to those who had trouble with social interactions. People diagnosed with Asperger's also had obsessive interests and enjoyed repetitive activities. 

Since 2013, people who were once considered to have Asperger's have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Doctors now understand behaviors that were once believed to be associated with Asperger's as caused by mild autism.

Many people have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism in childhood. However, some people with mild symptoms do not receive a diagnosis of autism until adulthood.

Signs of Asperger's in adults

Asperger’s, like autism, was mostly noticeable in interactions with other people. A person who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s or mild autism is usually not unhappy when alone. Mild autism doesn’t mean someone can’t keep a job, care for themselves, or start a family if they choose to do so .

The difficulty people with mild autism experience in certain social situations can, however, be distressing. Here are some signs of mild autism you may notice in yourself or others:

Social awkwardness

Adults with mild autism may come off as socially awkward. They may not understand the back-and-forth nature of conversations. One common behavior is unintentionally talking too much about yourself or your interests and not allowing the other person time to talk. 

People with mild autism also tend to miss social cues including facial expressions and body language. They may give off the impression that they are uninterested in or not paying attention to social interaction.

Difficulty understanding jokes or sarcasm

Some adults with the sort of mild autism that was once diagnosed as Asperger’s have a hard time understanding jokes, colloquial phrases, or sarcasm because they take things more literally. A colloquial phrase like “riding shotgun” — meaning to ride in the front seat of the car — may cause confusion.

One study found that teenage boys with Asperger’s syndrome preferred jokes with simpler endings, but still wanted to laugh and make others laugh. People with mild autism may have a different sense of humor from other people, but they still have a sense of humor.

Challenges making or keeping friends

Due to social difficulties, adults with autism may have few friends. They may find it challenging to spend time with people, preferring to spend time alone, immersed in their interests. 

Sensory issues

Some, but not all, people with mild autism also have sensory processing disorders. The symptoms of sensory processing disorders can include:

  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Sensitivity to certain types of touch
  • Sensitivity to loud or high-pitched noises
  • Sensitivity to strong smells
  • Poor balance
  • Low sensitivity to pain
  • Clumsiness 
  • Being extremely picky about food 

Avoidance of eye contact

One of the recognized symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome that is also common in people with mild autism was difficulty making eye contact or discomfort doing so. Along with other social behaviors, avoiding eye contact may give the impression that you’re not being interested in social interactions when you really are. 

Lack of adherence to social rules

Some adults with mild autism or previous Asperger’s diagnoses don't appear to follow social norms, like talking quietly in a library or taking turns in a conversation.

Very strong and particular interests

Some adults with autism have very strong interests. According to one study, their interests are more intense than those of neurotypical individuals — people without autism, mental illness, or cognitive or developmental disorders. These interests usually involve facts, objects, and sensory topics and can include:

  • Reading
  • Movies/TV shows
  • Video games
  • Animals
  • Collecting something
  • Math 

Difficulty with change

Adults with mild autism love routine and may become distressed if their daily routine changes. For some people, routine can mean eating the same food for each meal or watching the same TV show every night. Other people have more complex routines. When something disrupts this routine, it can be significantly upsetting for a person with autism.

Strong ability to focus

Adults with mild autism often enjoy spending a long time reading, writing, or working on a project. Sometimes this ability to focus for a long time on a particular interest can lead to a hobby or career. 

For example, Temple Grandin, a woman with autism, used her strong interest in animals to study animal behavior and develop new ways to handle livestock that make them less fearful and easier to manage. 

Strong attention to detail and pattern recognition

People with mild autism may have a greater ability than neurotypical people to recognize patterns or small details. Some enjoy performing tasks that require a high degree of accuracy and can recognize errors better than others.

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Causes of Asperger’s

There is no known cause for autism spectrum disorder. Some experts believe genetics may play a part. Mild autism may be caused by inherited genetic abnormalities or ones that occur spontaneously.

Researchers are also investigating whether exposure to certain environmental factors like chemicals or medications may cause autism, or make someone more likely to have it.

While other types of chemical exposure are being investigated, it’s a myth that vaccines against severe diseases like diphtheria can cause autism. Researchers have studied this theory in depth and have found no connection between vaccines and autism. Parents may believe a connection exists because autism so often becomes noticeable around the age that children are vaccinated.

While there is no known cause for the type of mild autism that doctors used to call Asperger’s, there are some risk factors. For example, men are more likely to be diagnosed with autism. Other risk factors may include:

Diagnosing Asperger’s in adults

It’s no longer possible to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at any age. The syndrome has ceased to be a valid diagnosis, and its symptoms are considered symptoms of autism.

To get a formal diagnosis of autism as an adult, you may undergo neuropsychological testing with a psychologist or a psychiatrist. The medical professional will interview you about your symptoms and behavior. They may also give you written or computer-based tests to compose a full picture of your language, communication, and cognitive abilities.

What kind of testing you need and from whom will vary depending on why you’re seeking a diagnosis. For example, your school or college may have very specific guidelines to follow in order to get academic accommodations including quiet testing areas free of unpleasant sensory stimulation. Workplaces may offer other types of accommodation based on other criteria.

It’s unlikely that a person with the type of mild autism once diagnosed as Asperger’s would qualify for disability payments, which are intended for people who can’t work any type of job. That said, you need a formal diagnosis from a Ph.D.-level psychologist or medical doctor to get supplemental social security income or social security disability insurance in the United States.

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Treatments for Asperger’s

Depending on your symptoms, treatment for mild autism may not be necessary. Just knowing about a diagnosis can help you to identify why you have struggled with certain things, inform future decisions, or be useful in seeking accommodations.

However, if your symptoms disrupt your life, the following treatments are available:

Prescription drugs

While there is no drug that treats autism, a medical professional may prescribe drugs to:

  • Stabilize mood
  • Reduce impulsive or compulsive behavior
  • Treat depression or anxiety caused by social challenges

Therapy

Counseling or therapy can help people with Asperger’s:

  • Learn to recognize social cues and “rules”
  • Practice social situations
  • Learn how to show interest in social interactions (making eye contact, not interrupting, etc.)
  • Learn to manage frustrations

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References
Asperger/Autism Network: "Asperger Profiles: The Big Picture – Strengths."

Asperger/Autism Network: "Asperger/Autism Spectrum Diagnosis in Adults."

Asperger/Autism Network: "Asperger's Syndrome and Humor."

Autism:"'I never realised everybody felt as happy as I do when I am around autistic people': A thematic analysis of autistic adults’ relationships with autistic and neurotypical friends and family."

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Autism Research: "ACCOMMODATIONS IN HIGHER EDUCATION."

Deutches Ärzteblatt International: "Asperger's Syndrome in Adulthood."

Development and Psychopathology: "Interests in high-functioning autism are more intense, interfering, and idiosyncratic, but not more circumscribed, than those in neurotypical development."

Frontiers in Neuroscience: "Genetic Syndromes, Maternal Diseases and Antenatal Factors Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)." Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: "Environmental factors influencing the risk of autism."

National Health Service: "Signs of autism in adults."

Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases: "Is There an Association Between Vaccination and Autism?"

Psych Central: "Asperger's Disorder Symptoms."

Social Security Administration: "You May Be Able to Get Supplemental Security Income (SSI)."

Stanford Medicine News Center: "5 Questions: Temple Grandin discusses autism, animal communication."

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