Home » Autism Diagnosis » Mild Autism in Adults: Can You Really Be “Mildly Autistic”?

Mild Autism in Adults: Can You Really Be “Mildly Autistic”?

August 8, 2022


Growing up Megan struggled with her relationship with her father. He was loving, hard working, and a musical genius. As far as relationships though, things were as complicated as the intricate melodies he composed.

Mild Autism in Adults: Can You Really Be “Mildly Autistic”?
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/mild-autism-adults/

In order to have a productive conversation, it was as if she had to enter the all encompassing bubble he lived in. Their connection was contingent upon his interests and knowledge base, which though extensive, often didn’t interest her. He often struggled to reciprocate, and join her in the rest of the “world”.

One day, while doing research for her college psych class, Megan stumbled upon an article about mild autism in adults. Suddenly her father’s life made complete sense! Megan set out on a quest to find out as much as she could to better understand autism spectrum disorders. In the process she learned what I want to share with you today.

Is mild autism an official diagnosis?

Some autism research suggests that most people diagnosed with ASD as adults, do not have the more severe forms. Mild autism has also been referred to as asperger’s syndrome and high functioning autism.

Mild autism would normally be referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), rather than a stand-alone diagnosis. This is because the current criteria, according to the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5), autism spectrum disorders are a spectrum of symptoms, severity and frequency. Mild autism would fall into that category.

However, adults medically reviewed as having more mild autism would have access to different treatment options, and possibly be more focused on comorbid conditions, than someone who has more severe forms of autism spectrum disorder.

This is because their autism may affect their everyday life differently. Their symptoms may be less pronounced, easier to mask, and maybe even overlooked completely. It may explain why they were not diagnosed as children as well.

What are mild symptoms of autism in adults?

Symptoms of mild autism in adults can mean less symptoms of autism than are listed, or more mild forms of them. Here are some symptoms to look out for according to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS):

Common signs of autism in adults include:

  • finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling
  • getting very anxious about social situations
  • finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own
  • seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to
  • finding it hard to say how you feel
  • taking things very literally – for example, you may not understand sarcasm or phrases like “break a leg”
  • having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes

Other signs of autism

  • not understanding social “rules”, such as not talking over people
  • avoiding eye contact
  • getting too close to other people, or getting very upset if someone touches or gets too close to you
  • noticing small details, patterns, smells or sounds that others do not
  • having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities
  • liking to plan things carefully before doing them

Autism in women and men

Although all individuals are unique, autism can sometimes be different in women and men. For example, autistic women may be quieter, may hide their feelings and may appear to cope better with social situations. This means it can be harder to tell you’re autistic if you’re a woman.

What is it like to be mildly autistic?

Being a “mildly autistic” person may mean that the majority of your symptoms revolve around social interactions. Common symptoms such as:

  • communication difficulties
  • confusion around facial expressions
  • difficulty reading body language
  • trouble reading social cues
  • difficulty maintaining close friendships
  • trouble relating to others
  • trouble regulating emotions
  • others’ thinking you behave differently
  • others’ misunderstanding or not appreciating your sense of humor

Many autistic adults have carved out their own path. They may “march to the beat of their own drum”. Many autistic people who are on the more mild end of the spectrum are also highly intelligent, extremely talented, and may occasionally possess savant abilities.

Not knowing they are autistic may increase the likelihood of developing emotional or mental disorders. It can cause them to struggle in their socioeconomic groups, in relationships with family members, and their self esteem.

What is borderline autism in adults?

Borderline autism is a very controversial topic in and of itself. Much debate has occurred over whether or not it actually exists.

For the purposes of this article I will just say that borderline autism is really what it sounds like. It can be something as simple as having symptoms of autism spectrum disorder yet not meeting the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. For more information, Autism Parenting Magazine writer Yolande Loftus has penned an informative article about borderline autism you can check out.

What are the benefits of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as an adult?

If someone has lived with symptoms of autism their whole life into adulthood, and were never diagnosed, should they pursue diagnosis? Is it too late? What is the point of being diagnosed?

People with mild ASD are often very good at masking their symptoms. If they are undiagnosed, they may struggle with feeling different, misunderstood, or be confused by other’s behavior. This can cause serious problems and isolate them from their loved ones in ways they don’t even realize.

Obtaining a diagnosis is a personal choice each individual adult must decide for themselves. For some, it is information they rather not have. For others, it changes their lives for the better.

It is important to note that adults diagnosed with ASD also had it in childhood. Just because it wasn’t diagnosed till later in life, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Therefore much of the current research applies in retrospect.

Understanding

An autism diagnosis can help bring better understanding to the person diagnosed. When they understand themselves, they can explain things to their loved ones. This understanding can relieve both parties, and be the catalyst for deeper connection.

A memory Megan had when learning about understanding of autism and its symptoms was a time when her father and mother had come to visit. She knew how particular he was about his stuff and routine, so she had made sure the guest room was made up just so. She was looking forward to her visit with both her parents.


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Alas, after just a few hours her father lost his temper and became very agitated about not being home in his own room, office, and environment. He and her mother left a full two days early. Megan had been devastated, and took it personally. 

Then, looking back, she understood the intensity her dad had displayed and realized his need for home went above and beyond. A little piece of her relationship with him was given back to her at that moment, and she decided in her heart to have things be different in the future.

Connection with others

Like Megan, children whose parents have autism, may miss the connection other kids may have with their parents. They may misunderstand their parent’s attempts at connection.

For example, Megan used to be irritated by her dad’s random texts detailing his work project, sometimes at all hours of the night. Didn’t he see she could care less about how the notes on the page worked together?

Now she understood, sharing his special interests with her was him sharing himself. He wanted her to know him, love him, and to share in his excitement,similarly to when a child goes on and on about their favorite toys.

Her response to him said: “I love you too, Dad”. From this perspective, something that used to make her feel distant from him now brought a sense of closeness.

Mental health conditions

In a study titled Autism spectrum disorder in adults: diagnosis, management, and health services development, we learn:

“Although the mental health needs of adults with ASD are less well characterized than those of children with ASD, there is evidence that adults with ASD have significantly increased rates of mental health problems, including mood and anxiety disorders, OCD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and psychotic disorders. Furthermore, these comorbid mental health difficulties persist from childhood to adulthood and occur in both males and females with ASD. Moreover, people with ASD can have specific cognitive anomalies, including poor planning, decision making, timing, and motor skills, which may adversely impact on their everyday living skills and ability to access health services.”

The addition of an autism diagnosis influences the direction a mental health professional may take. It could also lead other professionals in directions they may not have considered before when prescribing treatment options.

In the same study we learn: “There is evidence that ASD adults have differences in brain chemistry, which may contribute both to ASD symptoms and differential response to treatment. Three neurotransmitter systems have been a focus of current investigation: gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamine, and serotonin.

“In brief, GABA plays a central role in both neurodevelopment and inhibitory neurotransmission and binds differentially in adults with ASD. Conversely, glutamatergic (excitatory) neurotransmission appears to be enhanced, while serotonin anomalies have been associated with the recognition of emotion and response inhibition in adults with ASD.

“Crucially, serotonin levels may be modifiable and so may offer opportunities for future treatment development. For example, an fMRI investigation of the neural processing of facial emotions found that modulation of serotonin levels normalized the brain activation patterns of ASD adults in social brain regions (including frontal lobe, lingual gyrus, and limbic areas) to that of typically developing controls.

“Similarly, fMRI studies of serotonin modulation in tasks of impulsivity and inhibition found normalization of brain activation of ASD adults in key brain inhibition regions (frontal, striatal, and cerebellar). Positron emission tomography studies have reported abnormalities in both serotonin and dopamine transporter binding in adults with ASD.

Mild Autism in Adults Can You Really Be “Mildly Autistic”
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/mild-autism-adults/

“In addition to its better known hormonal role in facilitating uterine contractions and milk let down, oxytocin also acts as a neuromodulator and is thought to be implicated in social cognition. Although results of early oxytocin trials are mixed, there is preliminary evidence that intranasal doses of oxytocin are associated with improved empathy and reduced repetitive behaviors in adults with ASD. Furthermore, a 12-week modified maximum tolerated dose study of oxytocin in 15 young people with ASD found that daily administration of oxytocin was well tolerated, with no reported serious adverse events, and was associated with some changes in measures of social cognition, repetitive behavior, and anxiety.

“Overall, translational work is urgently required to better understand the potential relationship between brain chemistry and behavior in people with ASD and to facilitate the development of safe new treatments for adults with ASD.”

Conclusion

What Megan learned actually helped her to see that her dad was giving her all she needed as a child in his own way. Decoding his language revealed the depth of his love for her. She began to make a point to connect with him on his terms and cherished his response.

Many adults diagnosed with ASD fall under the criteria for so-called mild autism. They may struggle with social interaction more than the general population. A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder could grant them access to support services including occupational therapy, physical therapy and other services with a healthcare professional.

They may learn better communication skills, gain a better understanding of themselves and others, and make deeper connections with loved ones. For their loved ones, an ASD diagnosis could provide the missing link in their understanding, and motivate them to see and act on a better perspective when building relationships.

Resources

NHS

I would like to recommend a YouTube channel by Stephanie Bethany. She is autistic, and was diagnosed as an adult. Her content provides, unique, first-hand, and valuable perspective as she shares her experience and insight. She is also a speaker at the Autism Parenting Summit.

References: 

Murphy, C. M., Wilson, C. E., Robertson, D. M., Ecker, C., Daly, E. M., Hammond, N., Galanopoulos, A., Dud, I., Murphy, D. G., & McAlonan, G. M. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder in adults: diagnosis, management, and health services development. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 12, 1669–1686. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S65455 

Ketelaars, C., Horwitz, E., Sytema, S. et al. Brief Report: Adults with Mild Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Scores on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and Comorbid Psychopathology. J Autism Dev Disord 38, 176–180 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-007-0358-4

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