Can Autism develop later in life?

autism diagnosis adult

While most people who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) find out in childhood, some don’t receive a diagnosis until later in life. Someone as young as 2 years’ old can be diagnosed, so why do we see more and more adults being diagnosed with ASD? Can autism actually develop later in life?

When teenagers and adults are diagnosed with ASD, it’s typically down to the subtlety of autism symptoms in childhood. So, adults don’t so much as develop autism, rather than be diagnosed with it later in life. That could be down to gender, high-functioning autism, or late onset of symptoms. 


What is high-functioning autism?

People with high-functioning autism equip themselves with ways to mask the symptoms so well that parents, teachers, and caregivers aren’t aware of it. Therefore, people with high-functioning autism are more likely to receive a diagnosis later in life than children with more recognisable symptoms would. This isn’t down to the autism developing as the person got older, but more so because the symptoms were so subtle that people missed the signs. High-functioning people might have originally hidden the signs to fit in better with others. This generally results in mild social and communication challenges in comparison to someone with stronger symptoms of autism.


How is ASD different in girls?

For a long time, it was believed that boys were statistically more likely to have ASD  than girls. This meant that loads of symptoms were going unnoticed, or undiagnosed, because it just wasn’t likely that a girl would have autism. Many
health care providers were sceptical about autism in girls, therefore reluctant to give a positive diagnosis. Instead, many reasoned the behaviour with things like low self-esteem. For many doctors, the chances of a girl having autism was unlikely enough to not consider it, so parents were often told that their daughter did not have autism without taking a proper test.


Why do so many girls and women go un/misdiagnosed?

The model of classic ‘autistic’ behaviour was based on how boys or men with autism behave. This led to years of autistic girls going under the radar because they didn’t fit the model of how a child with autism would typically behave. Girls with autism might act in passive ways to avoid being thought of as a troublemaker. They also might act in a way that’s quiet or submissive – atypical signs of autism that tend to slip under the radar.

As there was less understanding around autism in girls, clinical approaches to the development and treatment of autism were disproportionately geared towards boys. Due to increased studies and understanding around females and autism, more women are being diagnosed with autism later in life. This has led to a misconception that they’ve developed it as they got older.


What help is available for adults with suspected ASD?

The standard diagnostic test for those with suspected ASD is primarily for children under the age of 6. As it isn’t possible for a teenager or an adult to develop autism, there isn’t a defined testing criteria. To confirm a positive diagnosis, doctors must rely on interactions with the patient, interviews with friends and family, as well as the symptoms reported by the patient. Often, doctors can misdiagnose autism in adults as a mental health disorder.

It becomes more difficult to deliver an accurate diagnosis when adults have become adept at hiding their symptoms. In this instance, the interviews with parents and caregivers are even more important, as recollections of what the patient was like in childhood will be heavily relied on.

Getting an ASD diagnosis as an adult is a long and complicated process. Since autism is typically diagnosed in young children, finding a clinician willing to diagnose an adult can be difficult. It requires a diagnosis from a specialist autism psychiatrist, who understands the complexities of autism in adults.


Help for adults with undiagnosed ASD

Unfortunately, NHS referral process can take several years. That coupled with most doctors’ reluctance to diagnose an adult with ASD makes going through the NHS exhausting and taxing. On average, parents of children with ASD wait
three and a half years before getting a confirmed diagnosis, which is only longer for adults. Fortunately, there are now private, specialist clinics that make the process a lot quicker. 

If you think you may be displaying signs of autism, we at Sanctum Clinic can help. We’re a private specialist autism clinic based in Wilmslow, Cheshire. We understand that you may be feeling confused or anxious, and we are here to reassure you that support is available. 

It’s a horrible feeling to think you’re ‘different’ but not knowing why. Having a name and a reason for it can be an incredible comfort. That’s why we offer an autism assessment within 24 hours of you getting in touch with us. There’s no need to worry about waiting years for a diagnosis, with Sanctum you can expect a confirmed diagnosis within two weeks. You don’t have to struggle with undiagnosed ASD for longer than you already have. For a confidential consultation, get in touch with us and take the first step towards a happier, healthier future.

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