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Is Autism Different in Kids vs. Adults?

Apr 16, 2024 | Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a condition marked by social, communication, and behavioral differences, is increasingly becoming better understood and accepted by the public. However, what’s less understood is how Autism manifests in adults vs. children.

Autism has distinct characteristics at different life stages, with early signs detectable in children as young as two years old. While children may face difficulties in social interaction and communication, adults might struggle with societal expectations, employment, and maintaining relationships. These changes underscore the importance of recognizing and adapting to the unique needs of individuals with ASD.

This article will delve into the key differences between autism in children and adults, highlighting the evolving nature of ASD and its implications for support and intervention.

Understanding Autism in the Context of Development

Autism is a complex and multifaceted condition that occurs across development. It exists on a spectrum (varies widely from person to person) and affects communication, behavior, and social interactions. However, the way in which it affects these factors is influenced by one’s current development.

In children, autism becomes evident at an early age, as young as two. Early intervention is crucial, as tailored support can significantly enhance learning, repetitive play, and routines.

As individuals with autism transition into adulthood, the challenges evolve. Adults may face obstacles in navigating social situations, employment opportunities, and independence.

Autism in Children

Autism in children manifests through several signs and symptoms, often recognized within the first few years of life. The intensity and severity of these signs and symptoms varies from one child to another. Early indicators may include:

  • Trouble making eye contact.
  • Delayed speech or language skills.
  • Preference for solitary play.
  • Insistence on repetitive routines.
  • Sensitivity to certain sounds or textures.

These behaviors are rooted in the core challenges of autism: social communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior.

From an early age, children with autism may face significant challenges in their development. These challenges can impact their ability to communicate, form relationships, and understand the world around them. These behaviors often serve as coping mechanisms for navigating a world that feels unpredictable.

As children with autism enter adolescence, the condition evolves in the context of physical growth, cognitive development, and developing social relationships. For teenagers with autism, these changes can intensify existing challenges, such as social communication difficulties, while also introducing new issues, such as heightened sensitivity to social rejection or isolation.

Autism in Adults

Adults with autism face a unique set of challenges and opportunities. While the core characteristics of autism persist, their manifestation evolves with age. Adults may develop sophisticated coping mechanisms to navigate social situations, mask symptoms, or pursue careers that match their skills and interests.

In contrast to children, adults with autism will have the same root issues, but they now exist within the context of social interaction, education, and work. These symptoms include

  • Difficulty understanding others’ thoughts based on body language.
  • High anxiety in social situations.
  • Preference for being independent or alone.
  • Appearing to be blunt or rude without meaning to be.
  • Difficulty expressing how one feels.
  • Taking things very literally.
  • Resistance to changing routines.

For many adults, the direct challenges of communication and social interaction can become more nuanced. The societal expectations for social cues and professional relationships require adults with autism to adapt their strategies for interaction.

These adaptations might include developing a detailed understanding of social protocols or finding niches where their skills and way of processing the world are seen as assets rather than challenges.

Key Differences in Autism Between Children and Adults

The journey from childhood to adulthood with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a dynamic evolution of symptoms, challenges, and strengths.

Children with Autism often navigate the world with a natural, unfiltered expression of their symptoms, largely unaware of how their condition sets them apart from their peers. They act following their inner preferences and challenges without a conscious effort to conform to societal norms.

In contrast, adults with mild to moderate levels of autism are typically more aware of their differences and societal expectations. This heightened self-awareness allows adults to adapt to social norms and environments, albeit sometimes at the cost of their comfort and authenticity.

Overall, the primary ways in which Autism evolves throughout development include:

  • Difficulties with Personal Relationships: As individuals develop, the nuances of personal communication become more complex. Children with autism might struggle with reading facial expressions and making friends. In contrast, adults can face challenges with navigating romantic relationships, workplace friendships, and parenting.
  • Difficulties with Social Interactions or Environment: Children with autism will show a disinterest in talking to others and making friends, preferring solitary activity. Adults may still find these situations challenging, but are expected to navigate social situations more frequently than children are.
  • Development of Coping Mechanisms and Masking: Children are often quite open about their difficulties. Over time, many adults with autism become adept at camouflaging their difficulties to fit into societal norms. This behavior can partly explain why the diagnosis of Autism is 1in 36 for children, but 1 in 45 for adults, despite the condition being present across development.
  • Development of Focused Interests: In childhood, autism can manifest through intensely focused interests or hobbies, which might seem restrictive in scope but provide comfort and a sense of order. As individuals with autism transition into adulthood, these focused interests can evolve into areas of expertise or specialized career paths, offering significant opportunities for employment and personal fulfillment.

Understanding these key differences highlights the importance of a life-span approach to autism support. Tailoring interventions and support to the changing needs of individuals with autism as they grow ensures that every person on the spectrum has the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and productive life.

The Importance of Tailored Support for Mental Health

The importance of tailored support for mental health cannot be overstated, especially when considering the diverse needs of individuals with autism across different life stages. Autism’s manifestation varies significantly from childhood to adulthood, necessitating distinct approaches to treatment and support to ensure mental well-being.

Therapy for Children With Autism

For children with Autism, the goal is early intervention to provide the best support for them during their development. Strategies focus on replacing behaviors and addressing communication difficulties.

Behavioral therapies, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), focus on reinforcing positive behaviors and reducing those that may interfere with learning and growth. The goal is to teach new skills in a manner which conforms to the child’s learning preferences.

Additionally, family involvement plays a pivotal role in supporting children with autism, addressing the dynamic needs of the entire family unit alongside the child’s specific challenges.

Speech and language therapy (SLT) targets communication difficulties in children. SLT aims to improve verbal and nonverbal communication skills, such as making eye contact or reading body language.

Occupational Therapy can assist in developing strategies to manage the sensory processing disturbances often found in children with autism. Learning new, functional self-care skills is a focus of Occupational Therapy, as well.

Therapy for Adults with Autism

Therapy for adults with autism focuses on enhancing quality of life, fostering independence, and managing the complexities of adult relationships and responsibilities.

In some cases, ABA therapy has been helpful with adults, as well. Depending on the needs of the adult, ABA can address problems in self-care, impulsivity, and/or tendencies towards social isolation.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be beneficial for some adults with autism, addressing issues such as anxiety, depression, and social communication. CBT may help individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors, improving emotional regulation and social skills.

Occupational therapy is a more physical approach that improves life skills essential for independent living, such as job readiness and daily living tasks. By focusing on practical skills, occupational therapy helps individuals navigate the workplace, maintain personal relationships, and manage household responsibilities with greater ease.

Get the Tailored Support You Need With Start My Wellness

As we’ve explored the evolving landscape of autism from childhood through adulthood, it’s clear that tailored support and understanding are critical at every stage.

Start My Wellness recognizes the importance of personalized support, offering a range of therapeutic services designed to cater to the specific needs of individuals with autism, regardless of age.

If you or a loved one is navigating the challenges of autism, we invite you to connect with Start My Wellness. Together, we can work with you to create a tailored support plan that reflects your strengths, challenges, and life stage.

Reach out today at (248)-514-4955 and meet our therapists to learn how we can support you or your loved one through your journey to wellness.


  1. CDC: Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder
  2. Start My Wellness: Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder
  3. National Health Service: Signs of Autism in Adults
  4. Autism Speaks: Autism Statistics and Facts
  5. Start My Wellness: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Dr. Anton Babushkin

Author: Anton Babushkin, PhD

Looking for a Therapist? Start My Wellness has highly experienced Licensed Therapists that are currently accepting new patients.


Blog Posts Tags: Autism | Self-Empowerment
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