Diagnosing autistic young people and adults

Although autism is often diagnosed in childhood, young people and adults are also diagnosed with autism.

This often happens if someone has noticed they think and behave differently from most other people. You may also recognise childhood traits that were not recognised as autism at the time.

Read more about diagnosing autism in children

Autistic traits – meaning things that autistic people often do, think, and feel – are often shared by non-autistic people too. This doesn’t mean that everyone is ‘a little bit autistic’, and many autistic people feel this phrase is unhelpful. It ignores their lived experiences, and makes it sound like autistic people do not need understanding, acceptance and support.

To be diagnosed with autism, you need to have had autistic traits from a young age. Those traits need to have had a significant impact on you or your daily life.

Speak to your GP practice if:

  • you think you may be autistic and would benefit from getting a diagnosis

Autistic traits in young people

You might notice different signs of autism depending on your age, experience, and the situations you encounter.

Communicating with others

As an autistic young person, you might:

  • find it hard to be understood in conversations
  • find it hard to work out when to talk in conversations – for example, you might never get to say what you want to say, or find yourself accidentally talking over other people
  • find it easier to communicate with other autistic people
  • show a great deal of enthusiasm for talking about subjects that interest you, but find it more difficult when trying to talk about other people’s interests
  • be able to answer other people’s questions, but struggle to know what questions to ask others, or know what to respond when someone tells you something about themselves
  • find other people say you use a lot of long words, or use more complicated words than most people
  • often use the same phrases when you’re talking
  • struggle when other people use hidden meanings – for example, it might be difficult for you to understand a ‘hint’ or notice when someone is flirting with you
  • find people can take the wrong meaning from your words or behaviour
  • find eye contact uncomfortable, or struggle to know how much eye contact to use
  • find yourself making social mistakes without realising why – for example, during conversations you might not realise there are things other people would rather not talk about, or don’t think are important to talk about

Adapting to different situations

As an autistic young person, you might:

  • do well when you’re in your routine, but find it difficult when routines change – for example, changes might make you feel anxious, make it hard to concentrate, or mean you have to work harder on things it’d normally be easy to do
  • struggle to imagine things that you haven’t experienced before – for example, if you’re going to a party for the first time it might be hard for you to imagine what will happen and what you’ll be expected to do

Learning and hobbies

As an autistic young person, you might:

  • have a lot of knowledge on particular topics, and spend a lot of time learning about them and telling others about them
  • have a hobby you feel very passionate about and spend a lot of time on
  • find it hard to start a new activity but get very focused on it once you get started – for example, you might be able to focus on it better than most people
  • find it difficult to stop doing an activity you’re very focused on, even if you need to move on to something else

Emotions and relationships

As an autistic young person, you might:

  • spend a lot of time being careful to avoid making social mistakes, or trying to make sure you don’t accidentally hurt anyone’s feelings
  • find that other people struggle to understand your feelings from your face or tone of voice
  • find that your friends are often older or younger than you
  • find that your friends tend to be autistic people
  • find you have a very clear idea of right and wrong, and strong views on issues that are important to you, where others might see things in ‘shades of grey’ and see more exceptions to rules
  • find a lot of people don’t understand your sense of humour, and you might not understand why their jokes are funny
  • be trusting, and find people can often take advantage of you
  • find it hard to work out when someone is being unkind
  • find it difficult to identify or describe your emotions or feelings

Sensory (sights, smells, sounds, touch, and tastes)

As an autistic young person, you might:

  • have a strong negative reaction to sounds, smells, sights, and things you can touch – for example, being unable to wear certain types of clothing or be in places with lots of different noises, like gyms
  • have a strong positive reaction to sounds, smells, sights, and things you can touch – for example, enjoying flashing, multi-coloured lights or how loud the music is at a concert
  • seek out certain sounds, smells, feelings or tastes because you find them particularly calming – for example, coloured lights or soft clothing and blankets
  • find making repetitive movements (often with your hands, fingers or legs) or repetitive noises calming or enjoyable
  • have difficulty recognising bodily needs or sensations

Autistic traits in adults

As you age and experience different environments, life events, and circumstances, you might notice different signs of autism. You might also have developed coping strategies for environments you find difficult, changing the way you manage them.

Work and education

As an autistic adult, you might:

  • find it more difficult than most people to communicate in interviews which can make it harder to get a job – for example, you may struggle to talk about your skills
  • find it more difficult than most people to keep a job – for example, you may work very well by yourself, but find team working more challenging
  • have a lot of knowledge or feel very passionate about a subject that’s useful for your work or studies
  • find it difficult or frustrating when rules or ways of doing things don’t make sense to you, or when these change
  • do your best work when you have a clear role, instructions and expectations, and find it more difficult than most people when these things are unclear

Relationships and being social

As an autistic adult, you might:

  • find socialising hard work –for example you might feel exhausted after meeting a large group of friends
  • have had relationships with friends or partners end because you couldn’t understand how each other thought, behaved, and communicated
  • prefer to be alone during breaks at work
  • find it difficult to make ‘small talk’ (conversation about day-to-day things such as the weather)
  • enjoy spending time with other people, but find activities that don’t have clear ‘rules’ or a schedule difficult because you aren’t sure what to do – for example, going to parties or nightclubs
  • prefer meeting up with people to do structured activities, like cooking or taking part in a shared hobby or interest

Hobbies and skills

As an autistic adult, you might:

  • have a lot of detailed knowledge about a particular topic or hobby and feel very passionate about it
  • find that the hobbies or topics you’re particularly passionate about have changed several times in your life

Communication and emotions

As an autistic adult, you might:

  • find other people often misunderstand you, or seem upset by things you say even if you don’t mean to upset them
  • find that you and other people might struggle to understand each other’s perspectives
  • find change more difficult than most people do – things that disrupt your daily routine, like changes to your job or going on holiday, can make you feel stressed and anxious

Sensory (sights, smells, sounds, touch, and tastes)

As an autistic adult, you might:

  • have a strong negative reaction to sounds, smells, sights, and things you can touch – for example, being unable to wear certain types of clothing or find it overwhelming being in places with a lot of different noises, like busy buses or trains
  • have a strong positive reaction to sounds, smells, sights, and things you can touch – for example, enjoying lying under a weighted blanket, or the loudness of the music at a concert
  • seek out certain sounds, smells, feelings or tastes because you find them particularly calming – for example, coloured lights or soft clothing and blankets
  • find making repetitive movements (often with your hands, fingers or legs) or repetitive sounds calming or enjoyable

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Last updated:
24 April 2024