What are the 3 main symptoms of autism in adults? (with Examples and Scenarios)

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What are the 3 main symptoms of autism in adults?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects individuals across their lifespan. While autism is often discussed in the context of children, it’s important to recognise that autism persists into adulthood and can manifest in various ways. Adults with autism might have been diagnosed in childhood, or they may have navigated much of their lives without a formal diagnosis, only to discover later that their experiences align with the characteristics of ASD. If you are an adult considering an autism assessment in Oxford, we can help you. 

Autism in adults is characterised by a range of symptoms that can impact social interactions, communication, behaviour, and sensory experiences. These symptoms exist on a spectrum, meaning that they can vary widely in their severity and impact from one individual to another. Understanding the main symptoms of autism in adults is crucial for fostering greater awareness and support, both for those who are on the spectrum and for the broader community.

Importance of Understanding Autism Symptoms in Adulthood

Recognising the symptoms of autism in adulthood is vital for several reasons. Firstly, it can lead to a better quality of life for those affected. Many adults with autism have developed unique coping mechanisms to manage their symptoms, but without understanding and support, they may still face significant challenges. A proper diagnosis can provide access to resources, strategies, and support systems tailored to their needs.

Secondly, understanding autism symptoms in adults helps to break down misconceptions and stigma. It promotes empathy and acceptance, enabling friends, family members, colleagues, and the community to offer more meaningful support. This awareness can also facilitate better workplace accommodations and more inclusive environments, enhancing the personal and professional lives of adults with autism. For example, if you’re an autistic adult learning to drive, there are driving schools and instructors who offer autism friendly driving lessons. (If you are an autistic adult looking for autism friendly driving lessons in the Oxford area, we have a list of driving instructors for autism Oxford).

Finally, knowledge of adult autism symptoms can guide individuals who suspect they might be on the spectrum. If you’ve ever felt different or struggled with certain aspects of daily life without knowing why, learning about autism might provide valuable insights. Seeking a professional diagnosis and support can be a transformative step towards understanding yourself better and finding ways to thrive.

In this article, we will explore the three main symptoms of autism in adults, providing detailed explanations and practical examples. We will also address common questions about the behaviour, recognition, and coping strategies of autistic adults. Whether you’re seeking information for yourself, a loved one, or simply wish to broaden your understanding, this guide aims to offer clear, compassionate insights into autism in adulthood.

The 3 Main Symptoms of Autism in Adults

Understanding the primary symptoms of autism in adults is essential for recognising the condition and providing appropriate support. The three main areas of focus are social communication difficulties, restricted and repetitive behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. Here, we provide a comprehensive overview of each area, including examples and explanations of how these behaviours can cause challenges.

Social Communication Difficulties

Adults with autism often experience significant challenges in social communication, which can affect their ability to interact effectively with others.

Challenges with Social Cues

Interpreting social cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can be difficult. An autistic adult might miss subtle signs of disinterest or discomfort in a conversation, leading to misunderstandings.

Difficulty in Starting and Maintaining Conversations

Initiating and sustaining conversations can be challenging. An individual may struggle to think of topics to discuss, find the right words, or maintain the flow of conversation, often resulting in awkward pauses or abrupt changes in subject.

Literal Interpretation of Language

Many autistic adults take language very literally, making it hard to understand jokes, idioms, or sarcasm. For instance, phrases like “kick the bucket” or “spill the beans” can be confusing without context.

Challenges in Building and Maintaining Relationships

Forming close friendships or romantic relationships can be tough due to difficulties in understanding social norms and expectations. This can lead to feelings of isolation or loneliness.


– Avoiding eye contact during conversations, which can be misinterpreted as disinterest or dishonesty.

– Speaking in a monotone or overly formal manner, making interactions feel stilted.

– Requiring extra time to process verbal information, which can frustrate conversation partners.

– Struggling with small talk, leading to difficulties in social settings like parties or networking events.

Impact on Daily Life:

These communication difficulties can lead to misunderstandings, social isolation, and strained relationships. In professional settings, they might result in challenges with teamwork and networking, potentially limiting career advancement opportunities.

Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours

Autistic adults often engage in restricted and repetitive behaviours, which provide a sense of comfort and predictability but can also pose challenges.

Ritualistic Behaviours

Following strict routines and rituals can be very important. An autistic adult might insist on eating the same food daily, follow a rigid daily schedule, or arrange belongings in a specific order.

Repetitive Movements

Also known as “stimming,” these behaviours can include hand-flapping, rocking, or repeating certain words or phrases. Stimming often helps manage sensory overload or anxiety but can draw unwanted attention or misunderstanding from others.

Intense Focus on Specific Interests

Autistic adults may have deep, narrow interests in specific topics, sometimes referred to as “special interests.” These interests can dominate conversations and thoughts, which might be perceived as obsessive by others.


– Repeatedly watching the same movie or reading the same book, which can seem unusual to others.

– Collecting and categorising items obsessively, which might appear eccentric.

– Spending hours researching a particular subject, often at the expense of other activities.

– Becoming highly distressed if routines are disrupted, leading to difficulty adapting to changes.

Impact on Daily Life:

While these behaviours provide comfort, they can also limit flexibility and adaptability. In social and professional contexts, repetitive behaviours might be misunderstood, leading to social stigma or workplace challenges. Intense focus on specific interests can interfere with balancing other responsibilities.

Sensory Sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities are common in autistic adults and can involve either hyper-sensitivity (over-sensitivity) or hypo-sensitivity (under-sensitivity) to various stimuli.


Over-sensitivity to sensory input can lead to discomfort or pain from sounds, lights, textures, or smells that others might find tolerable. For example, bright lights or loud noises can be overwhelming and cause significant stress.


Under-sensitivity might result in a need for more intense sensory input. An individual may not notice pain or may seek out strong sensory experiences, like touching various textures or engaging in activities that provide a strong tactile sensation.

Difficulty Filtering Sensory Input

Struggling to filter out background noise or irrelevant information can make environments like busy offices or crowded places particularly challenging.


– Wearing sunglasses indoors to cope with bright lighting, which can be perceived as odd.

– Avoiding certain fabrics due to their texture, leading to limited clothing choices.

– Being overwhelmed by strong smells or tastes, affecting dietary preferences and social dining experiences.

– Seeking out weighted blankets or tight clothing for a calming effect, which might seem unusual to others.

Impact on Daily Life:

Sensory sensitivities can make everyday environments challenging and sometimes intolerable. This can lead to avoidance of social situations, impacting relationships and opportunities. In work or educational settings, sensory overload can reduce productivity and increase stress, making it difficult to thrive in conventional environments.

Understanding these core symptoms of autism in adults provides a foundation for empathy and support. Recognising these signs allows for better accommodations and a more inclusive environment, helping autistic adults lead fulfilling lives. In the next sections, we will explore how these symptoms manifest in behaviour, how to identify mild and high-functioning autism, and strategies for coping with these challenges.

Other Common Behaviours in Autistic Adults

In addition to the primary symptoms of social communication difficulties, restricted and repetitive behaviours, and sensory sensitivities, autistic adults may exhibit other behaviours that are commonly associated with autism. These behaviours can vary widely but are often integral to the experiences of autistic individuals.

Common Behaviours Observed in Autistic Adults


Autistic adults may become intensely focused on a particular task or interest, sometimes to the exclusion of other activities. This hyperfocus can lead to remarkable productivity and expertise in specific areas but might also result in neglecting other responsibilities.

Examples and Scenarios:

– An adult might spend hours deeply engaged in coding or artistic projects, losing track of time and forgetting to eat or sleep.

– Someone might become so engrossed in a hobby, like model building or puzzle solving, that they miss social engagements or deadlines.

Difficulty with Executive Functioning:

– Executive functioning skills, which include planning, organisation, and time management, can be challenging for autistic adults. These difficulties can impact daily living and professional tasks.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Struggling to prioritise tasks at work, leading to missed deadlines or incomplete projects.

– Difficulty organising household chores, resulting in a cluttered living space and feelings of overwhelm.

Intolerance of Uncertainty:

– Many autistic adults find it hard to cope with unpredictability and uncertainty. This can manifest as a strong preference for routines and difficulty handling unexpected changes.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Experiencing anxiety when plans change at the last minute, such as a sudden meeting at work or a social event being rescheduled.

– Relying heavily on detailed schedules and becoming distressed if they are disrupted.

Social Fatigue:

– Social interactions can be exhausting for autistic adults, even if they appear to manage them well. This social fatigue often requires significant downtime to recover.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Needing to retreat to a quiet space after social events or busy days at work to recharge.

– Avoiding social activities because the effort required to participate feels overwhelming.

Emotional Regulation Difficulties:

– Autistic adults may have challenges with regulating emotions, leading to intense emotional responses to seemingly minor triggers.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Experiencing sudden outbursts of anger or frustration when things don’t go as planned.

– Feeling overwhelmed by emotions and struggling to calm down after a stressful event.

Strong Sense of Justice:

– Many autistic individuals have a heightened sense of fairness and justice, which can influence their interactions and decisions.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Advocating passionately for causes they believe in, sometimes coming across as rigid or uncompromising.

– Difficulty understanding why others might not share the same level of concern for fairness and justice.

Sensory Seeking:

– In addition to sensory sensitivities, some autistic adults engage in sensory-seeking behaviours to meet their sensory needs.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Seeking out activities that provide strong sensory input, such as swinging, jumping, or listening to loud music.

– Enjoying tactile experiences, like feeling different textures or engaging in crafts that involve hands-on materials.

Literal Thinking:

– Tendency to interpret information literally can affect understanding of abstract concepts or indirect communication.

Examples and Scenarios:

– Difficulty grasping figurative language, metaphors, or idiomatic expressions.

– Challenges with understanding indirect requests or implied meanings in conversations.

These additional behaviours highlight the diversity of experiences among autistic adults. Understanding these common behaviours can enhance empathy and support, leading to better accommodations and more inclusive environments. In the following sections, we will explore how to identify mild and high-functioning autism, as well as strategies for coping with these behaviours.

Recognising Mild Autism in Adults

Recognising mild autism in adults can be challenging, as the symptoms are often subtle and easily overlooked. However, understanding how these behaviours manifest can help identify and support individuals who may be on the spectrum. Here are some ways mild autism can appear to an outsider:

Appearing Shy and Withdrawn: An autistic adult might seem shy or reserved in social situations, avoiding eye contact and speaking minimally. They might prefer to stay on the sidelines rather than engage actively in conversations or activities.

Not Picking Up on Social Cues: They may struggle to interpret body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. This can lead to misunderstandings or socially awkward moments, such as not realising when someone is bored or offended.

Dominating Conversations: An autistic adult might talk at length about their interests without noticing if the listener is engaged or interested. This can come across as monopolising the conversation or being unaware of social norms.

Awkwardness at Social Events: In settings like work parties or gatherings, they might seem uncomfortable or out of place. They may find it hard to engage in small talk or join group conversations, often standing alone or leaving early.

Difficulty with Changes: They might become visibly anxious or upset if plans change unexpectedly or if they are asked to adapt to new routines or environments.

Example Scenario

Setting: A coffee shop meeting between two colleagues, Alex (an autistic adult) and Jamie.


Alex and Jamie meet at a coffee shop to catch up. During the conversation, Alex starts talking about a new project he is working on related to renewable energy sources. He shares detailed information about solar panel efficiency, highlighting specific data about performance in different weather conditions. Jamie listens but then tries to shift the conversation to a lighter topic by asking if Alex watched the game last night. 

Alex seems confused by the change in topic and mentions that he doesn’t follow sports. Instead, he starts talking about advancements in battery storage for solar energy, demonstrating his tendency to return to his areas of interest. Jamie, noticing this, asks Alex how he usually spends his weekends. Alex explains that he sticks to a routine of reading scientific journals and walking in the park, which helps him think.

Jamie attempts to make the conversation more comfortable by sharing his own struggles with switching off from work, hoping to find common ground. Alex agrees, stating that having a schedule helps him stay focused.

Key Observations from the Scenario:

– Social Interaction: Alex engages in the conversation but tends to steer the discussion back to his specific interests. He finds it challenging to shift topics and maintain small talk.

– Communication Style: Alex provides detailed information about his interests, which might not align with Jamie’s attempts to keep the conversation light and varied.

– Awareness and Adaptation: Alex shows difficulty in picking up on Jamie’s cues to change the topic but tries to adapt when Jamie redirects the conversation.

Understanding Mild Autism

Recognising mild autism involves noticing these subtle patterns and understanding that they align with autism spectrum traits. It’s important to approach such interactions with sensitivity and patience, providing gentle guidance to help individuals like Alex feel more comfortable and included. By fostering a supportive environment, we can help autistic adults navigate social interactions more effectively and with greater ease.

In the following sections, we will explore what high-functioning autism looks like in adults and discuss effective coping strategies for managing daily challenges.

High Functioning Autism in Adults

High functioning autism, often referred to as Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder, involves individuals who have milder symptoms and require less support than those with more severe autism. Adults with high functioning autism typically have strong language skills and average or above-average intelligence. However, they still face challenges in social interactions, communication, and behaviour that can impact their daily lives.


Strong Verbal Skills: They often have an extensive vocabulary and can articulate their thoughts well, though they might struggle with the nuances of social communication.

Focused Interests: They might have intense interests or hobbies and can spend a lot of time on these activities, sometimes at the expense of other responsibilities.

Need for Routine: A strong preference for routine and predictability can be evident, with difficulties adapting to changes.

Sensory Sensitivities: Sensory issues, such as hypersensitivity to light, sound, or texture, are common.

Social Challenges: Difficulties with understanding social cues, making and maintaining friendships, and managing social expectations.

Differences Between High Functioning Autism and Other Presentations:

Support Needs: High functioning individuals generally require less support in daily activities compared to those with more severe autism, but they still benefit from tailored interventions and accommodations.

Independence: They are more likely to live independently, hold jobs, and engage in typical daily activities, though they might still need support with social skills and executive functioning.

Communication: While they have strong language skills, they may struggle with pragmatic language use, such as understanding idioms, sarcasm, and non-verbal communication.

Example Scenarios:

Scenario 1: Workplace Interaction

Setting: An office environment where John (an adult with high functioning autism) is working on a team project with his colleague, Sarah.


John is known for his expertise in data analysis. During a team meeting, Sarah asks for his input on a report. John provides a very detailed and technical explanation, focusing on specific data points and methodologies. Sarah tries to shift the discussion to broader implications and team responsibilities, but John continues to delve into the details, not picking up on the cues to summarise his points.


– Focus on Details: John’s response is very detail-oriented, reflecting his deep knowledge and interest in the subject.

– Communication Style: He has difficulty adjusting his communication to match the needs of the team, missing social cues that indicate a need for a broader summary.

– Social Interaction: John’s behaviour might be perceived as not being a team player, though it stems from his focus and communication style.

Scenario 2: Social Gathering

Setting: A casual dinner party hosted by Emma, where she has invited several friends, including Mike, an adult with high functioning autism.


During the dinner, Emma notices that Mike is sitting quietly at the edge of the group, engaging minimally in the conversation. When asked about his interests, Mike passionately discusses his hobby of collecting rare stamps, providing extensive details that others might find overwhelming. Emma tries to include him in more general conversation topics, but Mike finds it challenging to participate and often returns to his specific interest.


– Social Engagement: Mike prefers to stay on the periphery of social interactions, indicating discomfort in larger social settings.

– Communication Style: His conversation is dominated by his intense interest, showing difficulty in gauging the group’s interest level.

– Social Cues: Mike struggles to follow the flow of conversation and adjust his responses to fit the group dynamic.

Scenario 3: Family Interaction

Setting: A family gathering at home where Lisa, an adult with high functioning autism, is interacting with her siblings.


During the family gathering, Lisa’s siblings are discussing changing plans this weekend. The weather isn’t good enough for the picnic they had planned, and are suggesting going out for coffee instead. Lisa becomes visibly anxious and expresses discomfort with the sudden change in plans, insisting that she needs more time to prepare. Her siblings try to reassure her and suggest she can decide later, but Lisa becomes increasingly upset and withdraws to her room to calm down.


– Need for Routine: Lisa’s strong preference for routine and predictability makes sudden changes very stressful for her.

– Emotional Regulation: Her heightened anxiety in response to the change in plans illustrates the difficulties autistic individuals can have with emotional regulation.

– Sensory Break: Retreating to a quieter space to calm down highlights her need for sensory breaks when feeling overwhelmed.

Understanding High Functioning Autism

Recognising high functioning autism involves understanding these behavioural patterns and communication styles. Providing support through clear communication, patience, and understanding can help individuals like John, Mike, and Lisa navigate social and professional settings more effectively. Creating environments where they can thrive involves recognising their strengths and offering support where needed.

In the next section, we will discuss coping strategies for autistic adults, offering practical tips for managing daily challenges and improving overall wellbeing.

Coping Strategies for Autistic Adults

Autistic adults often develop various coping strategies to navigate daily life and manage the challenges associated with their condition. These strategies can help mitigate stress and improve overall functioning, but they require patience, understanding, and sometimes, adjustments from those around them.

Effective Coping Mechanisms and Supports

1. Establishing Routines

Routines provide predictability and structure, which can significantly reduce anxiety for autistic individuals.

Example in Practice:

Lisa, who finds sudden changes stressful, uses a detailed daily planner to outline her tasks and activities. By planning her day in advance and sticking to a consistent routine, she feels more in control and less anxious. Her family supports her by giving her advance notice of any changes to plans whenever possible.

2. Sensory Management:

Managing sensory sensitivities is crucial for many autistic adults. This can involve both reducing unwanted sensory input and seeking out sensory experiences that are calming.

Example in Practice:

Mike, who is sensitive to noise, wears noise-cancelling headphones at work to help him concentrate. In social settings, he brings a stress ball or fidget toy to help him stay calm. His friends and colleagues understand his needs and ensure he has access to a quiet space when he feels overwhelmed.

3. Social Skills Training:

Participating in social skills training can help autistic adults improve their ability to navigate social interactions and build relationships.

Example in Practice:

John attends a weekly social skills group where he practises conversation techniques and learns to read social cues better. Through role-playing exercises and feedback, he gains confidence in interacting with his colleagues and friends. His workplace supports his efforts by providing a mentor who offers guidance and encouragement.

4. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques:

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help autistic adults manage stress and regulate their emotions.

Example in Practice:

Emma practises mindfulness meditation daily to help manage her anxiety. She also uses deep breathing exercises when she feels overwhelmed. Her family encourages her by creating a calm, quiet space at home where she can meditate without interruptions.

5. Seeking Professional Support:

Professional support, including therapy and counselling, can be beneficial in helping autistic adults address specific challenges and develop coping strategies.

Example in Practice:

Alex works with a therapist who specialises in autism to develop strategies for managing his sensory sensitivities and improving his executive functioning skills. Through therapy, he learns time management techniques and ways to reduce sensory overload in his daily life.

6. Creating a Supportive Environment:

Having a supportive environment at home, work, and in social settings can make a significant difference in how well autistic adults cope.

Example in Practice:

Lisa’s workplace accommodates her need for routine by allowing her to have a flexible work schedule and providing a quiet office space. Her colleagues are educated about autism and are supportive of her needs, creating an inclusive and understanding workplace.

7. Utilising Technology and Tools:

Technology can offer various tools to help manage daily tasks and reduce stress.

Example in Practice:

John uses a time management app to keep track of his tasks and deadlines. He also uses a reminder app to help him stay organised and on schedule. These tools help him manage his work responsibilities more effectively and reduce his anxiety about forgetting important tasks.

Understanding the Impact of Stress

It’s important to remember that autistic individuals might not always show immediate signs of stress. They may internalise their feelings and appear calm on the surface, even when they are struggling. Patience, understanding, and a willingness to adapt approaches can make a significant difference in how well autistic adults cope with various tasks and situations.

By implementing these coping strategies and creating supportive environments, autistic adults can navigate daily challenges more effectively. Understanding their unique needs and providing appropriate accommodations can greatly enhance their quality of life and overall wellbeing. In the final section, we will summarise key points and highlight how Oxford CBT can offer additional support for autistic individuals.

Seeking Professional Help and Support

Recognising when to seek professional advice is crucial for managing autism effectively. Here are some indicators that it might be time to consult with a healthcare professional:

  • Persistent Challenges: If you or someone you know experiences ongoing difficulties with social interactions, communication, or sensory sensitivities that interfere with daily life, seeking professional guidance is important.
  • Emotional Distress: Experiencing frequent anxiety, depression, or significant emotional distress related to social situations or sensory issues is a strong sign that professional support may be needed.
  • Impact on Daily Functioning: When challenges related to autism affect work, education, or personal relationships, it is beneficial to seek an evaluation and tailored support.
  • Unexplained Behavioural Patterns: If there are consistent behaviours that seem unusual or unexplained, such as intense routines, repetitive actions, or specific sensory preferences, a professional assessment can provide clarity.
  • Previous Misdiagnoses: If there have been previous diagnoses of other conditions like anxiety, depression, or ADHD without significant improvement, it may be helpful to explore the possibility of autism, especially in cases where symptoms might have been overlooked.

Resources and Support Networks for Autistic Adults in the UK

Accessing resources and support networks can provide invaluable assistance for autistic adults and their families. Here are some key resources available in the UK:

National Autistic Society 

  – Offers comprehensive support and resources for autistic individuals and their families. Provides information on diagnosis, education, employment, and social care.

Autism Alliance UK 

  – A network of specialist autism charities across the UK offering various support services, advocacy, and resources.

Ambitious about Autism

  – Provides services, support, and resources aimed at improving the lives of autistic children and adults, including education and employment initiatives.


  – Focuses on autism research to improve the lives of autistic people through evidence-based support and interventions.


  – Offers mental health support and resources, including services tailored to autistic individuals experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

Local Support Groups

  – Many local communities have support groups and meetups for autistic adults and their families. These groups provide a sense of community, shared experiences, and practical advice.

  – Check local listings or community centres for information.

Professional Support Services

Therapists and Counsellors

Seeking support from therapists or counsellors who specialise in autism can provide tailored strategies to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Occupational and Speech Therapy

These therapies can help address specific challenges related to sensory processing, communication, and daily living skills.

Employment Support

Organisations like Remploy and Scope offer support and resources for autistic adults seeking employment, including job coaching and workplace adjustments.

Seeking help and support is a vital step in managing autism effectively. Early diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and access to supportive resources can significantly improve the quality of life for autistic adults and their families. At Oxford CBT, we are dedicated to providing compassionate care and personalised support to help you navigate the challenges of autism. Our team of experienced professionals is here to guide you through the process, offering comprehensive evaluations and tailored interventions. If you suspect that you or someone you care about might be on the autism spectrum, we encourage you to reach out and explore the support available.


Autism in adults can manifest in various ways, from social communication difficulties and restricted repetitive behaviours to sensory sensitivities. Recognising these symptoms is crucial for providing appropriate support and improving the quality of life for autistic individuals. Mild autism and high functioning autism present unique challenges, but with the right coping strategies and support systems, autistic adults can navigate daily life more effectively. Establishing routines, managing sensory inputs, participating in social skills training, and seeking professional support are all valuable strategies. It is important to understand that stress and difficulties may not always be visible, and a supportive approach can make a significant difference.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of autism that impact daily life, seeking professional guidance is essential. Early diagnosis and tailored interventions can lead to significant improvements in managing symptoms and enhancing overall wellbeing. Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional advice if you suspect autism. Understanding and support from professionals can provide the tools needed to navigate the challenges of autism effectively.

How Oxford CBT Can Help

At Oxford CBT, we are committed to your mental health and wellbeing. Our team of experienced professionals offers a warm and welcoming environment where you can receive comprehensive evaluations, evidence-based treatments, and ongoing support. We understand the unique challenges faced by autistic adults and are dedicated to providing personalised care tailored to your specific needs. Whether you are seeking help for yourself or a loved one, we are here to support you every step of the way. Reach out to Oxford CBT to learn more about our services and how we can assist you in your journey towards better mental health and a more fulfilling life.

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