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What to Do If You Suspect You Have Undiagnosed Autism

Accurate diagnosis and treatment for autism were not fully established until 1976. What should you do if you are an adult and you think you are autistic?


Adults who suffer social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and depression may actually fall on the spectrum of autistic disorders, which range from incurable autism to high-functioning autism.

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History of the Diagnosis of Autism

Autism was not properly understood and treated until the latter part of the 1970s. The term “autism,” meaning autos, or “self,” in Greek, was first used by a Swiss psychiatrist in 1911 to refer to a type of schizophrenia.

Not until the 1940s did American psychiatrists begin using “autism” to describe extremely withdrawn children with social and emotional problems.

As recently as the 1960s and ’70s, children with autism were treated with electric shock therapy and behavior therapy which relied on pain and punishment to correct abnormal behavior.

A Revolutionary New Treatment for Autism

In 1974, Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife, Samahria, wrote the book Son Rise, about their son Raun, who was considered severely and incurably autistic. Undaunted, the Kaufman’s developed an intense program of therapy for their son, who eventually graduated from college.

The Kaufman’s established the “Son-Rise Program” in 1974, which evolved into the Autism Treatment Center of America™. The center teaches the methods developed by the Kaufman’s for persons who want to learn effective treatment methods for adults and children with autism.

Thanks to the efforts of the Kaufman’s, behavior therapy, highly-controlled and personalized learning environments are the primary treatments for autism.

Problems of Autistic Adults Who Predated Son-Rise

By the time the Kaufman’s revolutionized the treatment of autism, many children were not properly diagnosed or treated for autistic disorders. They are now adults.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can range from severe autism, to Asperger’s Syndrome, or to mild, “High Functioning Autism” (HFA). Older adult autistics may have been institutionalized as mentally retarded, while others with milder symptoms probably coped with their problems on their own.

Adults who grew up with undiagnosed autism may have suffered from a range of symptoms, including but not limited to:

  1. Social ineptitude, saying and doing inappropriate things;
  2. The difficulty with small talk and participation in group conversation;
  3. Inability to interpret facial expressions or gestures;
  4. Lack of skill distinguishing between serious conversation and facetious remarks;
  5. Social anxiety disorder, resulting in social isolation;
  6. Phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders and depression; and
  7. Clumsiness and lack of physical coordination.

These individuals may have gone to psychiatrists who have successfully treated them for some of their symptoms. But now that facts about autism are available, some psychiatric patients and others who have suffered in silence may realize that they might be highly-functioning autistics.

The Triad of Impairments: How to Find Out if You May be Autistic

An article published by the National Autistic Society tells adults exactly what to do if they suspect that they may be autistic:

The first step is to ascertain if you have one symptom in each of the “triad of impairments.” All autistic individuals must have at least one symptom in each of the three categories of the triad.

Communication

Difficulty in communication, particularly receptive communication. Inability to interpret the significance of gestures and to distinguish between serious conversation and “teasing” are symptoms, as are social anxiety and repetitive speech.

Social Understanding

Difficulty functioning in a group and conversing appropriately in a group situation.

Imagination

(Not to be confused with “creativity“) Disorders of the imagination are an obsession with routines, difficulty organizing plans, and sequencing tasks. Autistic persons may compensate by creating detailed checklists and numbered tasks.

Symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome

Identified by Hans Asperger in the 1940s, Asperger’s Syndrome is characterized by the same triad of symptoms of autism; however, the child with Asperger’s wants to fit in and be social but simply does not have the skills to do so.

Characteristics of persons with Asperger’s are secondary to the triad of autism and include common psychiatric problems, such as obsessive-compulsive behavior, social isolation, rigid routines, phobias as well as physical lack of coordination.

Steps to Take if You Have a Symptom in Each of the Autistic Triad

After studying the triad of impairments, if you believe that you have autism or Asperger’s, the National Autistic Society recommends the following measures.

  • Ask your doctor for a referral to a psychiatrist who has experience diagnosing autism. If you already have a psychiatrist who does not feel confident diagnosing autism, ask for a referral.
  • Only discuss the diagnosis of autism. Do not digress or confuse the physician with other problems.
  • Identify only one strong symptom that you have in each of the triad. No one has all of the traits in each triad, but, as stated above, an autistic person always has at least one trait in each part of the triad.

Why Adults with Undiagnosed Autism Need a Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with autism is not an “excuse for bad behavior.” It is desperately needed by some to restore feelings of self-worth. Some individuals may long for the understanding of family, friends, and co-workers who may have considered them to be self-absorbed or socially inept.

The National Autistic Society encourages diagnosis for the following reasons:

  • To understand that some of your problems have been misdiagnosed as psychosis;
  • To know that unacceptable social behavior on your part has not been purposeful or due to ignorance;
  • To become eligible for services that help those with high functioning autism and Asperger’s; and
  • To benefit from community and Internet support groups who have similar problems resulting from failure to diagnose their autism.

Adults with Autism May Have Been Overlooked

If you think you may have lived a large part of your life with undiagnosed autism, professionals recommend that you visit a physician to obtain an accurate diagnosis. It will help you and your loved ones to deal with your diagnosis-related limitations.

For more information and support visit, autism-help.org.


References

  • Arehart-Treichel, J, “Adults With Autism Often Undiagnosed,” Psychiatric News, June 6, 2008 Volume 43 Number 11 Page 27. © American Psychiatric Association.
  • AUTISTIC DISORDERS FACT SHEET, © The National Autistic Society 2003, © www.autism.org.uk.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a doctor for advice.

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