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What does undiagnosed autism in adults look like?

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Have you ever felt like everyone else has a handbook for social situations, but you never got your copy? Do you have very strong preferences about fabrics or foods? Do you wonder if it’s autism, or if you’re just introverted, sensitive, and quirky?


Look, I’m not a doctor. I’m just another former gifted kid who wears Loop earplugs to sporting events and has to constantly remember to write niceties in her emails. As of this moment, I don’t have the resources to get the whole formal evaluation to find out “for sure” if I’ve got a touch of the ‘tism. But, I’ve done lots of Googling (shoutout to the websites that point to all my Googling as a sign of autism) and I thought I would share some of the things I’ve found.

Understanding the Spectrum

Everyone with autism has different support needs. Doctors often describe autism profiles with three levels, most prominently characterized by those support needs:

  1. Level 1 is often considered mild, and those within this category may learn to mask their symptoms and needs at an early age. This masking may lead them to fall through the cracks, with their autism going unnoticed.
  2. Level 2 represents a moderate need for support, and people in this group might find it harder to communicate in a way that’s understood and accepted by neurotypicals.
  3. Level 3 indicates substantial support needs. People in this category might be nonverbal at times, and are unable to mask.

Some people grew up only understanding autism to describe people who need substantial amounts of support to meet their basic needs. If you have level 1 ASD but the picture of “autism” in your head looks like level 3, then it would make sense that you’d be confused about your experience.

Signs of Undiagnosed Autism in Adults

Since our perception of the world is based on our own experience, it’s easy to assume that everyone thinks, feels, and acts the way we think, feel, and act. And if everyone does it, then it can’t be an autism thing, right?

Your keen pattern recognition skills have probably picked up where I’m going with this, but I’ll go there anyway. First, no. Not everyone thinks, feels, and acts the way you do – that would be statistically improbable anyway. I have a formula in my head for social interactions with strangers, and when I found out that most people just say the things that come into their heads, and it goes well for them? Mind. Blown. Moral of the story: keep an open mind to hearing about how your experiences differ from others.


Verbal Communication

Autistic verbal communication is effective and tends to be direct. Sometimes, it can be so direct that it intimidates neurotypicals, but it’s not on purpose! Both autistic and allistic communication tendencies have their strengths. We can run into issues when both sides don’t keep an open mind about the others’ perspective, but the differences in general communication style are just that: differences.

Let’s revisit the idea of direct verbal communication. If they need or want something, they’re more likely to ask for it directly, and expect others to do the same. On the flip side, allistics put more emphasis on niceties and small talk, and might indirectly mention their needs or wants. For example, a neurotypical might invite a group of people to a party by saying this:

“I’m they are having a party Friday night. It’s a potluck, and we still need drinks!”

The autistic person receiving that message might think to themselves, “huh, drinks are pretty important. I sure hope they invite someone that brings drinks!” and not realize that they themselves had been invited.

Sign #1 of undiagnosed autism: taking things literally. Bonus points if you have thought to yourself, “I don’t have the ‘taking things literally’ sign of autism because I don’t do [very specific thing].”

Sign #2 of undiagnosed autism: finding it easier to communicate with other neurdivergent people, especially if communicating with neurotypicals gets confusing.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication includes body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, inflection, and other things that aren’t the words coming out of your mouth. Neurotypical people tend to put much greater importance on these nonverbal signals than autistic people do. This applies to both the sending and receiving of messages. Again, neither group is better or worse than the other! The differences in communication, though, can lead to confusion and frustration.

Sign #3: practicing your “yes, I am listening and interested” face.

Sensory Stuff

People with autism become overstimulated from sensory input more quickly and more intensely than their allistic peers. These manifest in different ways for everyone, and different people are sensitive to different sensory triggers. I’ll list a few examples below, but this list is definitely not comprehensive.

  • Hearing electricity in your home, but struggling to understand conversation in restaurants 
  • Using Loop earplugs (or another cool type of earplug) in loud settings 
  • Placing a high priority on clothing fabric, and not being able to stand certain materials. 
  • If you find a texture that feels good on your fingertips, you could play with that object for hours.

Sign #4: having very strong opinions about socks.

Sign #5: if I asked you about food textures that you can’t stand, you would have a list of things that you hate.

Sign #6: your noise-canceling headphones are an absolute lifesaver.


Online Quizzes

Courtesy of Embrace Autism, a phenomenal resource that I love to cite, I’ve linked some common self-assessment questionnaires below. I’ve had doctors recommend these to me, so here I am, recommending them to you.

Autism Spectrum Quotient

The Doctor Decision

If you find that you relate to much of this article (plus the other 7 you read in the past week about this topic) you might be weighing your options about a formal diagnosis. Pursuing a formal autism diagnosis is a personal decision and has its pros and cons. On one hand, receiving a diagnosis might help you gain access to tailored therapy and/or the accommodations that will help you be successful in school and at work. On the other, the process can be challenging, time-consuming, and costly. Regardless of your decision, you are valid and we are accepting of self-diagnosis here.

Your Journey is Just Beginning

If it feels like there are pieces of your life that are starting to make more sense, I encourage you to keep exploring other autism content! You could start with our piece on pathological demand avoidance (PDA) and autism. The more you understand yourself, the better you can meet your needs.

A final note about us

We’re not doctors, and we absolutely believe in science. Our resources here are informative only, and should not be taken as medical advice. We’ll update our content as new research emerges, so if you see something that’s gotten out-of-date, please send us a message!

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