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Spotlight on autism in adulthood

A lack of adult-specific diagnostic tools for autism risks them becoming “the hidden face” of the disorder, says a researcher.

Flinders University PhD candidate Clare Holmes is embarking on a 4-year study to develop new tools to improve diagnosis and understanding of autism characteristics later in life.

Holmes said while there were many successful diagnostic tools to identify autism spectrum disorder in childhood, adult diagnostic protocols often relied on information that was difficult for adults to obtain or poorly targeted.

She said anecdotal evidence showed a growing number of people were being diagnosed in adulthood. “Some people are diagnosed as adults because they are going through the diagnostic process with their child and recognise some of the same characteristics in themselves,” she said.

“Others might not have necessarily needed a diagnosis until adulthood because they had a lot of support as a child but pressures in adulthood such as the breakdown of a relationship might lead them to seek help.”

Milder forms of autism, such as Asperger’s, were also not added to the diagnostic guidelines until the mid 1990s, so a population of adults are likely to have gone undiagnosed.

Holmes said the study aimed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of “what autism looks like” in adulthood.

“Children and adults with an autism spectrum disorder will usually show the same broad social impairments and restricted, repetitive behaviours but these traits won’t look the same. Some of the communication difficulties in childhood, for example, will be totally different for adults.

“That’s why I want to develop diagnostic tools that reflect how autism presents in adulthood so we can ensure adults don’t become the hidden face of autism,” said Holmes.

She said an adult diagnosis can provide relief to those who have experienced difficulties for many years.

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