How to Recognize Autism Symptoms in Yourself

Do you think your quirkiness extends beyond social awkwardness? If so, you may be autistic. Autism is a highly complex neurological difference, but with thought and research, you can understand it.


Observing the General Symptoms

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    Look at how you react to social cues. Autistic people have trouble understanding subtle social cues. You might struggle with this if you are…

    • Having trouble understanding how another person is feeling (e.g. wondering if they are too sleepy to talk or not)
    • Being told that your behavior was inappropriate, and feeling very surprised to hear this
    • Not realizing that someone is bored of talking and wants to do something else
    • Frequently mystified by other people’s behavior
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    Ask yourself if you have trouble understanding other people’s thoughts. This includes being unable to correctly anticipate their opinion on something and seeing that they react to something in ways you didn’t expect. In extreme cases, autistic people cannot comprehend that people have ideas that differ from theirs.
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    Consider your responses to unexpected events. Scheduled changes in routine, unfamiliar new events, and sudden changes in plans all qualify. Do changes like this upset you? Do you feel especially anxious in new circumstances, or if the order of things is broken? Does it feel like nothing makes sense anymore?
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    Watch yourself to see if you stim. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is a stereotyped movement used for self-calming,[1] focusing,[2][3] expressing emotions,[4][5] communication,[6] and coping with difficult situations.[7] While everyone stims, it’s especially important and frequent for autistic people. If you haven’t been diagnosed yet, your stims may be on the more subtle side.

    • Flapping or clapping hands
    • Rocking
    • Hugging yourself tightly, squeezing your hands, or piling heavy blankets on yourself
    • Tapping toes, pencils, fingers, etc.
    • Crashing into things for fun
    • Playing with hair
    • Pacing, spinning, or jumping
    • Looking at bright lights, intense colors, or moving gifs
    • Singing, humming, or listening to a song on repeat
    • Smelling soaps or perfumes
    • You may have “unlearned” certain stims when people told you to stop. Consider if you did any of these during your childhood.[8]
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    Identify any sensory issues. Many autistic people have Sensory Processing Disorder (also known as Sensory Integration Disorder), which means that the brain underreacts or overreacts to certain stimuli. Here are some examples:[9]

    • Sight—Becoming overwhelmed by bright colors or moving objects, not noticing things like road signs, attraction to the sight of hustle and bustle
    • Hearing—Covering ears or hiding from loud noises such as vacuum cleaners and crowded places, not noticing when people are talking to you, missing things that people say
    • Smell—Feeling disturbed or nauseated by smells that don’t bother others, not noticing important smells like gasoline, loving strong scents and buying the strongest-smelling soaps and food available
    • Taste—Preferring to eat only bland or “kid food,” eating extremely spicy and flavorful food while disliking anything bland, or disliking trying new foods
    • Touch—Being bothered by certain fabrics or clothes tags, not noticing when people touch you lightly or you are injured, or constantly running your hands along everything
    • Vestibular—Getting dizzy on cars or swing sets, or constantly running around and climbing things
    • Proprioceptive—Constantly feeling uncomfortable movements of your bones and organs, bumping into things, or not noticing when you are hungry or tired
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    Consider whether you experience meltdowns or shutdowns. Meltdowns, a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction which may be mistaken for tantrums in childhood, are explosions of emotion that occur when an autistic person can no longer keep stress bottled up.[10][11][12] Shutdowns are similar in cause, but the autistic person instead becomes passive and may lose skills (such as speaking).[13][14]

    • You may view yourself as sensitive, hot-tempered, or immature.
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    Think about your executive function. Executive function is the ability to stay organized, manage time, and transition smoothly. Autistic people often struggle with this skill, and may need to use special strategies (such as rigid schedules) in order to adapt. Symptoms of executive dysfunction include…[15]

    • Not remembering things (e.g. homework assignments, conversations)
    • Forgetting to do self-care activities (eating, bathing, brushing hair/teeth)
    • Losing things; a disorganized desk
    • Procrastinating and struggling with time management
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    Consider your passions. Autistic people often have intense and peculiar passions, which are called special interests. Examples include fire trucks, dogs, quantum physics, autism, and that novel you’ve been working on since you were a teenager. Special interests are notable in their intensity. Here are some signs that your passion has reached autistic levels:

    • Talking about your special interest for long periods of time, and wanting to share it with others
    • Being able to concentrate on your passion for hours; losing track of time
    • Organizing information for fun, such as charts, tables, and spreadsheets
    • Being able to write/say long and detailed explanations of nuances of your interest, all off of the top of your head, perhaps even quoting passages
    • Correcting experts in the field
    • Being wary of talking about your interest, for fear that you’ll annoy people
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    Think about how easy it is for you to talk and process speech. Autism is often associated with difficulties in spoken language, the degree of which greatly varies from person to person.

    • Did you learn to speak later in life (or not at all)? Do you sometimes lose the ability to form words when you feel upset or overwhelmed? Is it sometimes easier for you to use typing, gestures, sign language, picture boards, or behavior to communicate?
    • Do you have a hard time turning your thoughts into spoken words? Have people ever remarked on long pauses in the conversation (especially in upsetting conversations)? Do you avoid difficult conversations because you aren’t sure you’ll be able to form coherent sentences or say something remotely resembling your main point?
    • Is it hard for you to understand speech? Do you struggle to keep up while taking notes, and miss some things that your teacher/professor says? Do you forget things people tell you? Are you overwhelmed by a string of spoken directions? Does it take time to realize what someone said? (For example, they say “Your book is about to fall,” and by the time you realize that you should move, your book has hit the floor.)
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    Examine your appearance. One study found that autistic children have distinct facial characteristics—broad upper face, big wide-set eyes, a short nose/cheeks area, and a wide mouth[16]—in other words, somewhat of a “baby face.” You may look younger than your age or be told that you look attractive/adorable.

    • Not every autistic child has each of these facial features.[17] You may only have a few.
    • Abnormal airways (double branching of the bronchi) were also found in autistic people. The autistic people’s lungs were completely typical, until the double branching at the end of the tubes.[18]


Scouring the Internet

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    Search for autism quizzes online. Quizzes such as the AQ and RAADS can help give you a sense if you’re on the spectrum. They are not a substitute for a professional diagnosis, but they are a useful tool.

    • Some professional questionnaires are available online.[19]
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    Turn to organizations run mostly or completely by autistic people, such as the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network. These organizations provide a much clearer view of autism than organizations run by parents or family members do.[20] Autistic people best understand their own symptoms, and also offer a more positive viewpoint than organizations that bemoan “families afflicted with autism” or the need for a eugenic cure.[21][22][23]
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    Read the work of autistic writers. Many autistic people love the blogosphere (perhaps because eye contact is not required, and no one can interrupt us). Many bloggers will discuss symptoms of autism, and offer advice for people who are questioning whether they are on the spectrum.
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    Turn to social networking. Many autistic people can be found in hashtags such as #actually autistic and #askanautistic. In general, the autistic community is very welcoming to people who are wondering if they are autistic, or who are self-diagnosed.
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    Start researching therapies. What types of therapies do autistic people need? Do any of the therapies sound like they would help you?

    • Take time to learn which therapies are damaging and/or abusive. That way, if you find yourself at a therapy center in two months and see a “Quiet Hands” sign hanging on the wall, you’ll be wise enough to run away and never come back.
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    Research comorbid conditions. Autism can come with sensory processing issues, anxiety (including OCD, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety), epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues, depression, ADHD, sleeping trouble, and a host of mental and physical illnesses. See if any of these disorders sound like something you might have.

    • Is it possible that you mistook another disorder for autism?
    • Is it possible that you have autism AND another disorder? Or even more disorders?


Confronting Your Misconceptions

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    Realize that autistic people are not automatically devoid of empathy. Many autistic people…

    • are fully capable of empathy
    • empathize well, but don’t always understand social cues, and thus might not understand how someone is feeling
    • cannot empathize well, but still care deeply about others and are good people
    • wish people would stop talking about empathy
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    Know that autism is not a disease, not a burden, and not a life-destroying disorder.[24] Many autistic people are capable of living worthwhile, productive, and happy lives. Autistic people have written books, founded organizations, run nationwide or worldwide events, and improved the world in many different ways. Even those who cannot live on their own or work can still improve the world through their kindness and love.
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    Don’t assume that autistic people are lazy or intentionally rude. Autistic people have to try harder to conform to many social expectations of politeness. Sometimes they fail. They may realize it and apologize, or need someone to tell them that they missed their mark. Negative assumptions are the fault of the assumer, not of the autistic person.
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    Realize that autism is an explanation, not an excuse. Most times when autism is brought up after a disagreement, it is as an explanation for the autistic person’s behavior, not an attempt to escape consequences.

    • For example, “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. I’m autistic, and I didn’t understand that it was rude to call you fat. I think you’re beautiful, and I picked this flower for you. Please accept my apology.”
    • Usually, people who complain about autistic people “using it as an excuse” either met one bad person or are upset because autistic people exist and have voices. This is a very rude and destructive assumption to make about a group of people. Do not let this affect your perspective on autistic people as a whole.
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    Rid yourself of the idea that there’s something wrong with stimming. Stimming is a natural mechanism that helps with self-calming, concentration, meltdown prevention, and expression of feelings. Preventing someone from stimming is damaging and wrong.[5][25] There are only two instances in which stimming can be a bad thing:

    • Stims that cause you bodily harm or physical pain, such as head-banging or biting yourself. These can be replaced by a harmless stim, such as head-shaking and biting chewy bracelets.
    • Highly distracting stims when people are concentrating. For example, a math test is not a good time to hum loudly or flap your hands wildly. This can be replaced by subtler stims (e.g. clicking teeth or playing with a fidget toy on your lap) until people are no longer concentrating, or by leaving (e.g. taking the math test in a separate room where you may flap to your heart’s content).
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    Stop seeing autism as a puzzle to be solved. Autistic people are already complete. They add diversity and meaningful perspectives to the world. There is nothing wrong with who they are.


Consulting People You Know

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    Ask your autistic friends about it. (If you have no autistic friends, then go find some and come back.) Explain that you think you may be autistic, and that you’re wondering if they’ve observed any symptoms in you. They may ask you questions to better understand your symptoms.
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    Ask your parents or guardians about your developmental milestones. Explain that you’ve been curious about your early childhood, and ask when you met different developmental milestones. People with classic autism often hit various developmental milestones later than people with Asperger’s or no developmental differences.

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    Show a close friend or family member an article on autism symptoms. Explain that when you read it, it reminded you of yourself. Ask if they also see similarities. Autistic people tend to have lower self-awareness, so you might not realize that you had some symptoms.

    • Keep in mind that no one understands what’s going on inside your head. They do not see all the adjustments you make to appear more “normal,” and thus might not realize that your brain works differently. Some autistic people can make friends and interact with people without anyone realizing that they are autistic.
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    Once you’ve come to your conclusion, discuss it with your family. Consider seeing a specialist to get diagnosed. Many health insurance plans will cover various therapies, such as speech, occupational, and sensory integration therapy. A good therapist can help you improve your skills to best adapt to a neurotypical world.

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