How Can I Help an Adult Who May Have Aspergers or Autism?

Girl with Computer
Girl with Computer. Getty

Question: How can I help an adult who may have Asperger's syndrome or autism?

I know an adult who seems to have all the symptoms of autism, but doesn't have a diagnosis. What should I do?

Answer: Often parents, siblings, friends or lovers believe an adult they care about may be diagnosable on the autism spectrum. Sometimes, but not always, that person may be open to ideas for finding help and improving symptoms.

Sometimes, on the other hand, suggesting to an adult that they may be autistic can cause some serious negative repercussions.

Before you do anything at all, it's important to know more about autism than what's commonly shared on morning shows or among friends. To qualify for an actual autism spectrum diagnosis, a person must have multiple symptoms -- and all those symptoms must be severe enough to seriously impact their ability to live a normal life. Just as importantly, the symptoms must have been present from the time the individual was a very young child.

Here, for example, are some misconceptions about what autism really looks like:

My co-worker is very shy, and has only a couple of friends. Shyness is not the same as autism. People with autism may be shy or social -- but they are likely to find social communication tricky. They may not pick up on sarcasm, talk about the "right" topics, or know when to join in and when to step away from a private conversation.

My adult son is so fascinated by online gaming that he can't think about anything else. While people with autism may perseverate (over-focus) on areas of special interest, perseveration alone isn't enough to qualify for a diagnosis.

My brother is terrific at computer programming, but has never been able to find a girlfriend.

Many people with autism have a talent for programming, and relatively few find it easy to connect romantically. But that can be said for many, many people who are NOT autistic.

My sister has the same routines that she has to go through every day. People with autism generally prefer routinized schedules as opposed to spontaneity. But the need to, for example, touch objects in the same order in order to reduce anxiety, is not usually associated with autism. It may, however, be associated with other disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

What should you do if you still think someone in your life is autistic?

To start with, while an adult in your life may, in fact, be diagnosable with Asperger syndrome, it's not absolutely necessary to get an "official" diagnosis. That's because (1) it's hard to find a specialist with experience in diagnosing adults with Asperger syndrome and (2) there is no particular treatment for Asperger syndrome in adults.

Generally speaking, adults with autism receive treatment for specific symptoms through a combination of cognitive (talk) therapy, direct instruction for particular social situations, and appropriate medications.

They may also choose to seek help from an occupational therapist for sensory problems: Many people on the autism spectrum over or under-react to sound, light, pain, and so forth.

The most effective course to follow for your adult child is:

  • Seek out a psychiatrist who can work with him on his social anxieties and shyness (in some areas it may be possible to find a psychiatrist with experience working with adults on the autism spectrum, but it's not absolutely critical);
  • Consider any medications the psychiatrist may recommend;
  • Consider using videos, books and other tools that provide direct instruction in handling problem situations at work or in the community;
  • Consider connecting with online support groups for adults with Aspergers and related disorders.

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