While autism affects adults and children, it presents differently in autistic adults.
For example, autistic adults may have developed coping strategies or learned to mask social communication issues. Their sensitivities, special interests, and executive functioning skills may change over time. Autistic adults may also have other mental health or medical conditions that weren’t present or diagnosed in childhood.
Here are some differences between how autism affects adults compared to children.
Autistic adults have decades of experience behind them, and the self-awareness they’ve developed as a result can be empowering. It can help them develop coping strategies, assert their rights and needs, and find a community that understands them. Self-awareness can also help them get to know and accept themselves and move towards living their best lives.
By contrast, children may struggle to process and express what they’re experiencing. They don’t have as much information about themselves, others, and which labels suit them as adults do. And the adults in their lives likely have a lot of control over them, whether they’re helpful or not.
Example: An autistic adult receives a diagnosis and, for the first time in their life, understands why they respond in unconventional ways to the world around them. This allows them to see their autistic self as different rather than broken, and they start to feel more confident after meeting others with similar experiences.
Autistic adults often face challenges in finding and keeping a job due to difficulties with social communication, sensory overwhelm, and more. Within the autistic population, job insecurity is high, and there is no public funding available to help. However, unlike children, autistic adults may be better equipped to advocate for their needs, request accommodations, and hold others accountable.
Children enjoy the benefit of not needing to work, but struggles with socializing, processing, and executive function are more likely to be noticeable at school or home. Autistic teens joining the workforce can also struggle with the transition into working life and may need support to thrive.
Example: An autistic adult is struggling to understand verbal instructions at work. Their performance is suffering, so they ask their manager to issue written instructions instead. Working remotely from home also allows them to better accommodate their unique needs.
Managing relationships, both platonic and romantic, can be difficult for autistic adults due to differences in communication styles, sensory sensitivities, and energy levels. Traditional dating advice aimed at neurotypical individuals may not be effective for autistic people, which can increase stress and cause uncertainty. It’s also common for autistic adults to be treated like children, so it’s important for them to find people who respect their autonomy and agency.
Autistic children and teens struggle with relationships too, but adult relationships come with unique expectations that adults find challenging. For example, the social script for small talk at corporate functions might confuse an autistic adult who has never been in that situation before. Navigating sex and intimacy is another area autistic adults don’t have much guidance in.
Example: An autistic adult is casually dating, but they get overwhelmed by the sensory environment in restaurants, bars, and clubs. They can’t find anyone who wants to date them and enjoys low-sensory environments until they start dating other autistic adults who feel the same way. This leads to isolation until they meet someone with similar needs.
Autistic adults may also have additional mental health or medical conditions that need extra support or treatment. Some of these conditions may improve over time, while others can worsen. Because of this, many autistic adults are frequent visitors to healthcare facilities.
Children and teens may also have co-occurring conditions. However, considering most people’s health worsens with age, it’s likely they’ll need to deal with new ones later in life. Navigating the healthcare system alone can also be really difficult for autistic adults.
Example: As they age, an autistic adult’s migraines start to get more intense. This requires testing, diagnosis, and a treatment plan that requires their time and energy for years. The situation is especially problematic for low-income people who don’t have health benefits.
Autistic adults may advocate for their needs and rights by using their experience to drive change and raise awareness. This is a part of self-determination for autistic adults, which enables them to have greater control over their own lives and decision-making. Through advocacy, autistic adults may also enhance their careers, self-fulfillment, and connection with other autistic people.
Many children and teens are fortunate to have caregivers who can advocate for them, but this may not last into their adulthood. As autistic people grow up, many need to learn how to advocate for themselves, which requires a lot of time, energy, and research.
Example: A non-verbal autistic adult learns how to use augmented alternative communication devices to create educational YouTube videos about non-verbalism. They then use these videos to rally the government for more support for non-verbal autistic adults in their area.
As autistic adults grow older, they may be able to make their own decisions, including living independently. However, managing household chores and responsibilities can be difficult for many autistic adults, and there are limited publicly-funded support and services available. Living alone can be especially challenging, as struggling to keep up with basic needs like eating, sleeping, cleaning, and running errands can have serious consequences in addition to the normal stresses of adult life.
It’s rare for anyone under the age of 18 to be living independently, so it’s usually a challenge unique to adults. Autistic adults might need help with activities like personal hygiene, making appointments, or repairing their homes.
Example: An autistic adult who is able to work and pay their bills struggles to keep their house clean. They find themselves forgetting to eat, shower, drink, and sleep, but they don’t know who to rely on for aid. This reduces their quality of life. Friends and family help where they can, and they pay a cleaner to tidy their place once a season.
Remember, some autistic adults may experience more significant challenges than others, while some may have developed effective coping strategies that allow them to live more comfortably.
A lifetime of working in journalism and advocacy prepared me for becoming a content creator with AutismBC. As an autistic person with OCD, anxiety, depression, and myotonic dystrophy, I understand firsthand what it’s like to live and think differently than most, and I’m passionate about advocating for and communicating with others in the community.
I’m also a non-binary lesbian in a happy relationship. Outside of writing, I love to make music, watch horror movies, and hang out with my partner and cat.