Skip to main content

Adult Autism

Find clubs, groups and support services for adults with autism on our website.

What is Autism

Sourced from the National Autistic Society.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life; autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be 'cured'. Often people feel being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity.

Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support. All people on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.

Find out how many people are autistic, how autistic people see the world, how autism is diagnosed, and how you can help.

How common is autism?

Autism is much more common than most people think. There are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism - that's more than 1 in 100. People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can be autistic, although it appears to affect more men than women.

How do autistic people see the world?

Some autistic people say the world feels overwhelming and this can cause them considerable anxiety.

In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family, school, work and social life, can be harder. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet can also struggle to build rapport with autistic people. Autistic people may wonder why they are 'different' and feel their social differences mean people don't understand them.

Autistic people often do not 'look' disabled. Some parents of autistic children say that other people simply think their child is naughty, while adults find that they are misunderstood. We are educating the public about autism through our Too Much Information campaign.


A diagnosis is the formal identification of autism, usually by a multi-disciplinary diagnostic team, often including a speech and language therapist, paediatrician, psychiatrist and/or psychologist.

The benefits of a diagnosis

Getting a timely and thorough assessment and diagnosis may be helpful because:

  • it helps autistic people (and their families, partners, employers, colleagues, teachers and friends) to understand why they may experience certain difficulties and what they can do about them
  • it allows people to access services and support.

How autism is diagnosed

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another, but in order for a diagnosis to be made, a person will usually be assessed as having had persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests since early childhood, to the extent that these "limit and impair everyday functioning".

Read more about diagnostic criteria and the triad of impairments theory.

Persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction

Social communication

Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They may find it difficult to use or understand:

  • facial expressions
  • tone of voice
  • jokes and sarcasm.

Some may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will often understand more of what other people say to them than they are able to express, yet may struggle with vagueness or abstract concepts. Some autistic people benefit from using, or prefer to use, alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols. Some are able to communicate very effectively without speech.

Others have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.

It often helps to speak in a clear, consistent way and to give autistic people time to process what has been said to them.

Social interaction

Autistic people often have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions. This can make it very hard for them to navigate the social world. They may:

  • appear to be insensitive
  • seek out time alone when overloaded by other people
  • not seek comfort from other people
  • appear to behave 'strangely' or in a way thought to be socially inappropriate.

Autistic people may find it hard to form friendships. Some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about it.

Read more about communication and social interaction, social isolation and social skills.

Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests

Repetitive behaviour and routines

The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.

The use of rules can also be important. It may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the 'right' way to do it. People on the autism spectrum may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but may be able to cope better if they can prepare for changes in advance.

Highly-focused interests

Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. An interest may sometimes be unusual. One autistic person loved collecting rubbish, for example. With encouragement, the person developed an interest in recycling and the environment.

Many channel their interest into studying, paid work, volunteering, or other meaningful occupation. Autistic people often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness.

Sensory sensitivity

Autistic people may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Or they may be fascinated by lights or spinning objects.

Read more about repetitive behaviour and routines and sensory processing.

Different names for autism

Over the years, different diagnostic labels have been used, such as autism, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism spectrum condition (ASC), classic autism, Kanner autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), high-functioning autism (HFA), Asperger syndrome and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). This reflects the different diagnostic manuals and tools used, and the different autism profiles presented by individuals. Because of recent and upcoming changes to the main diagnostic manuals, 'autism spectrum disorder' (ASD) is now likely to become the most commonly given diagnostic term.

Causes and cures

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism is still being investigated. Research into causes suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may account for differences in development. Autism is not caused by a person's upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual with the condition.

Is there a cure?

There is no 'cure' for autism. However, there is a range of strategies and approaches - methods of enabling learning and development - which people may find to be helpful.

View a video based on a cartoon by Rebecca Burgess: Understanding the spectrum

Or see the comic strip

Find clubs, groups and support services for adults with autism on our website.

Getting an autism diagnosis

Sourced from the National Autistic Society

Here you can find information about diagnosis for adults who are autistic, or think they may be autistic. There are many online 'autism tests' available, but none of these can guarantee accuracy. Find out about the benefits of diagnosis, how to get diagnosed and the services and support you may be able to access after you have been diagnosed.

Am I autistic?

You may be wondering if you are autistic. Perhaps you have read something about the condition, or seen a programme on TV, and think that it describes some of your own experiences.

It's quite common for people to have gone through life without a diagnosis of autism, feeling that somehow they don't quite fit in. Many people learn to cope with life in their own ways, although this can be hard work. They might be married or living with a partner, have families or successful careers. Others may be more isolated and find things much more of a struggle.

It is up to you whether you decide to seek a diagnosis and some people are happy to remain self-diagnosed. The only way to know for sure whether you are autistic is to get a formal diagnosis.

Read about some experiences of diagnosis.

Benefits of a diagnosis

Some people see a formal diagnosis as an unhelpful label, but for many, getting a timely and thorough assessment and diagnosis may be helpful because:

  • it may help you (and your family, partner, employer, colleagues and friends) to understand why you may experience certain difficulties and what you can do about them
  • it may correct a previous misdiagnosis (such as schizophrenia), and mean that any mental health problems can be better addressed (however, it can be difficult to make a diagnosis of autism where there are severe mental health issues, or where someone is receiving treatment)
  • it may help you to get access to appropriate services and benefits
  • your employer will be required to make any necessary reasonable adjustments
  • it may help women, and those with a demand avoidant profile, who may not before have been recognised as autistic by others
  • you can join the autism community – you don't need to be diagnosed to join our online community or subscribe to our Asperger United magazine, but you might need a diagnosis to join some social groups.

Getting a diagnosis – the process

Autism (including Asperger syndrome) varies widely from person to person, so making a diagnosis can be difficult. A diagnosis – the formal identification of autism – is therefore best made by a multi-disciplinary diagnostic team.

Some diagnostic teams accept self-referrals, but in most areas, you will need a referral from your GP. If you are seeing a different health professional for other reasons (for example, a psychologist if you have depression), you could ask them for a referral instead.

Step 1: speak to your GP

Book an appointment with your GP. Make sure your diagnosis is the only thing you are seeing your GP about. If you try to mention it during a consultation about another subject, your GP may not address it fully.

Step 2: present your case

Your GP needs a reason to refer you for diagnosis, so you will have to explain why you think you could be autistic, and how a diagnosis would benefit you. If you think you might want help with this, ask someone you know to come with you.

Explaining your situation

You could say that you've been reading about autism, or that you've been in touch with The National Autistic Society. You could say that you think you experience some of the difficulties people on the autism spectrum can face, and you would like to seek a formal diagnosis to be sure. Try to give your GP some examples of difficulties you've had in adulthood and childhood with communication, social interaction, sensory difficulties, friendships or employment, and the need for routine, and how much you think these affect the different areas of your life.

Your GP’s responsibilities

Not all GPs will have an in-depth knowledge of autism, so it's important to explain things as clearly as you can. You could take along a copy of our guidance for GPs, and tell your GP about the relevant guidelines on autism recognition and referral that should guide their decision to make a referral.

In England, your GP should be following NICE guideline 142 and be aware of the statutory guidance requiring a clear diagnosis pathway for adults.

Step 3: getting a referral

If your GP agrees to refer you, we recommend that you tell them about local services which have experience of multidisciplinary diagnosis of autism in adults. Print out the details of diagnostic services in your area and take them with you.

If it isn't possible to refer you to a multidisciplinary team, you could be referred to an individual professional, such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. This professional should be experienced in diagnosing autism, as this will mean you are more likely to be accurately assessed, and will avoid having to go back to your GP to ask for a second referral.

Once you have been referred, there is no more involvement from your GP.

Where will I be referred to?

You are most likely to be referred to a diagnostic service (such as a clinic or assessment centre) in your local Clinical Commissioning Group area.

Private diagnosis is always an option, if you can pay for one, but you may occasionally find that local service providers (for example, social services) will not accept private diagnoses and will insist upon you having an NHS diagnosis, too.

What if my GP does not refer me?

If your GP decides not to refer you for a diagnosis, ask for the reason why. If you don't feel comfortable discussing their decision then and there, you can ask for a second appointment to talk it through. You could ask to see another GP at the surgery.

If you want to complain about the referral or the diagnostic service you received, you can make a complaint.

Step 4: the diagnostic assessment

Most adults see a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or multi-disciplinary team for their diagnosis. Waiting times vary. You can take someone with you when you go for a diagnosis if you like.

The team or professional might ask you to bring an ‘informant’ with you – someone who knew you as a child, such as one of your parents or an older sibling. This is because they may be able to give important information about your childhood.

A diagnosis is not a medical examination. You don't need to be examined physically and shouldn't be asked for any samples, such as blood.

How will they determine that I am autistic?

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another, but in order for a diagnosis to be made, a person will usually be assessed as having had persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests (this includes sensory behaviour), since early childhood, to the extent that these 'limit and impair everyday functioning'.

There are several 'diagnostic tools' available, and diagnosticians aren't obliged to use a specific tool. The tool is likely to involve a series of questions about your developmental history from when you were a young child (for example, about language, play and cognition).

When will they tell me the result?

The diagnostician will tell you whether or not they think you are autistic. They might do this on the day of the assessment, by phone on a later date, or in a written report that they send to you in the post.

The report may say that you present a particular autism profile, such as an Asperger syndrome or demand avoidant profile. Diagnostic reports can be difficult to read and understand in places. You can call the diagnostician to talk through any parts of the report that you find unclear.

Find out more about autism profiles, and diagnostic criteria, tools, and manuals.

Step 5: coming to terms with the results

If you are told you are not autistic

Sometimes people are told they aren't autistic, and sometimes they may be given a diagnosis they don't agree with.

You can seek a second opinion, which either means going back to your GP to explain that you aren't happy with your diagnosis and ask them to refer you elsewhere, or paying for a private assessment.

If you go for a second assessment, remember that it may reach the same conclusion as your first.

If you get an autism diagnosis

If you are diagnosed as autistic, you may have a lot of questions. You might be wondering how you can find out more about your condition, meet other autistic people, or access services and support.

Post-diagnostic support is important. Some diagnostic teams and professionals offer follow-up services after diagnosis and might be able to answer your questions and point you towards support services. However, not all do this.

Support does not automatically follow diagnosis, but having a formal diagnosis does mean that you are more likely to be able to access services and claim any benefits you are entitled to. Not everyone feels they need further support – for some people, simply getting a diagnosis seems to be enough.

What next?

Find clubs, groups and support services for adults with autism on our website.

If you are a parent/carer or an adult who is on the autism spectrum you can visit the Sheffield Autistic Society website, or you can phone them on 07914 410761 or on 01246 238768  or email Graham Nield:

Support from the National Autistic Society:

Living with autism as an adult

Sourced from the National Autistic Society

Whether you're old or young, life as an autistic young person or adult can bring particular challenges. Although it may feel like you're alone, help is available.

In this section you'll find help with work, ageing, encounters with the law and managing money. You can also read real-life stories from others on the spectrum.

Everything you need to know


Guidance for autistic adults about the world of work, careers services and bullying in the workplace

Getting older

Real life stories, advice, and resources on benefits, health and socialising for middle aged autistic people

Encounters with the law

Information for autistic people and their parents and carers about dealing with the criminal justice system

Managing money

Get a basic overview of how to manage your money


Find out about how you can be supported and enabled, or support and enable yourself

Real stories

Read real stories about various aspects of life by autistic adults who want to help others by sharing their experiences

Useful resources

A list of useful resources for adults on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger syndrome

Sheffield Autistic Society:

If you are a parent/carer or an adult who is on the autism spectrum you can visit the Sheffield Autistic Society website, or you can phone the telephone helpline if you wish to speak to someone at the society on 07923 473240 (Monday-Friday 9am - 5pm. Please leave a message and they will try and get back to you as soon as possible). Alternatively you can email Graham Nield:

Women and autism

Find out about some of the issues relating to autism and gender, including ideas about why more men and boys are diagnosed than women and girls.


There are free online training courses to help you learn more about autism. You can get a certificate for completing some of the courses.

Last Updated: 11/12/2018
Back to top Contact US
Powered by Open Objects © Open Objects Software Limited