After a cursory investigation into the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome, the mind tends to reel back to people we’ve known, characters from popular fiction, family members or even life partners, with the thought, “I wonder…” It can be tempting to begin amateur diagnosis of every person who says an insensitive thing or won’t look you in the eye. But Asperger’s symptoms in adults can be just as subtle and complex as they are in children.
The fact that Asperger’s is a relatively new diagnosis—it only made it into the DSM in 1994 and is being folded back into the autism spectrum in 2013—means that there are many adults out there who never had proper diagnoses as children. Perhaps a family doctor hesitated to diagnose autism due to the mildness of symptoms or the stigma attached with the term “autism” at the time. Or perhaps a diagnosis of mild autism was made, and even well intentioned parents were unsure how to act on it. But the most likely scenario is that a child was simply labeled “weird” and went on with life unclear why they struggled in ways their peers did not.
As such, Asperger’s in adults can be a very frustrating thing to cope with, both for patients and people in their lives. Whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, it often means a life of struggle during social interactions, work, and in family or romantic relationships. Many don’t learn they have the syndrome until a child or grandchild is diagnosed, and then a light bulb goes off when shared family members recognize similarities. The resulting realization and diagnosis can be a tremendous relief, followed by a daunting look toward the challenges ahead.
Manifestation and Challenges of Asperger’s in AdultsSome of the symptoms of Asperger’s tend to ease a bit with age, or as the person learns to compensate for his or her different abilities. As with Asperger’s in children, the primary symptoms involve difficulty empathizing and reading emotions, or the social cues most people notice automatically. There may be a sensed coldness or lack of connection between loved ones. Adults with Asperger’s may be labeled as “quirky” or “weird,” never quite keeping up with conversation during social or work gatherings. They often continue the tendency to hold conversations that feel one-sided, robotic, or monotonous.
Adults with Asperger’s also will continue to have similar fixations in narrow interests. They often obsess over hobbies that involve collection and classification, less as a social activity and more as something they enjoy in isolation. They are often highly intelligent and have a singular skill or expertise in their passions, but might be labeled strange, slow or antisocial nonetheless.
In Relationships: You can imagine such symptoms, especially if someone doesn’t know he or she has any kind of disorder, can be exasperating in daily life. For one, relationships can be trying for both parties involved. For the person with the disorder, it can feel as though a partner or family member is never satisfied with the level of emotion being expressed. And on the other end, there will be a sense that the person is shut off, overly rational, or excessively vigilant about details. A partner may have the feeling of being along or having to carry the emotional weight for both halves of the relationship.
Relationships with an adult who has Asperger’s are far from doomed though. The emotions are there, and the person is not a robot. It’s just that the connections and the communication of emotions can be quite strenuous. But just as we love all people for their strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences, the same goes for adults with Asperger’s.
In the Workplace: Work can also be a challenge for adults with Asperger’s. Repeated difficulty or failure in certain realms can be maddening to no end. On top of these struggles, even once diagnosed, it can be difficult to find proper disability resources because of the unique nature of the disorder. The fact that a person can cope fairly well most of the time can betray the severity of the disability.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way and awareness about autism spectrum disorders continues to improve. For example, public schooling can offer individual counseling and assistance, and many universities have built in resources and made adjustments for students on the autism spectrum. There are also increased opportunities for attending college from home or online. There are also support resources that help adults with Asperger’s find and retain employment, including finding a specialized position that suits the unique needs and skills involved. Many people with Asperger’s have thrived in positions that demand fixed attention for long periods of time, such as computer programming, drafting, work with electronics or mechanics, or a variety of positions in the physical sciences.
Finally, while the challenges for an adult with autism are significant and not to be minimized, it’s important to point out that, whether in spite of or because of, there are many stories of adults with autism spectrum disorders finding great success in their fields of interest. They champion the concept of “neurodiversity,” and as proud Aspies cite their prominence in the tech and computer fields. Professionals have noted apparent Asperger’s symptoms in people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or even Former Vice President Al Gore.
Resources and ReadingFor adults who may have Asperger’s, or their loved ones, a similar level of caution should be exercised with diagnosis and treatment, including help from health professionals. It’s especially worth noting that in adults with Asperger’s, there are often other concurrent disorders such as hyperactivity, anxiety or addiction.
To start with, the Autism Society is a fantastic resource that can point affected adults in the right direction. There’s also a great deal of literature available, from personal to clinical. Here are a few selections:
- Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison
- The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband, by David Finch
- Asperger Love: Searching for Romance When You’re Not Wired to Connect, Kindle Single by Amy Harmon
- The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood