The neurodivergent era? Record number of U.S. adults being tested for autism –

When a child is diagnosed with autism, there is a period of mourning for what might have been. It could be likened to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When an adult is newly diagnosed with autism, it is likely to be a relief, the steadying of putting a name on a problem, the door to a more fulfilling life, and a kind of catharsis. Life looks clearer, its blurry focus becomes sharp. It’s an identity that fits, that comes with community, which can satisfy a life-long yearning, finally, for a sense of belonging.

A peer-reviewed study based on 2020 census data estimated that one in 45 adults in the U.S. are autistic. That’s about 7.5 million people. Unlike autistic children, autistic adults are usually underserved. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 21% of adults with disabilities (autism included) are employed. The National Autism Society reported in 2016 that the unemployment rate among autistic adults was as high as 85%. Up to two-thirds of autistic adults have considered suicide, and 35% have attempted to take their own lives.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. These are some common characteristics of autistic adults:


  • Difficulty joining conversations.
  • Difficulty understanding tone of voice and non-verbal cues (facial expressions, body language).
  • Others may find it hard to read their emotions.

Social Interaction:

  • Anxiety in social situations.
  • Difficulty making friends, preferring solitude.
  • Blunt or unintentional rudeness.
  • Struggling to express feelings.

Behavior and Interests:

  • Repetitive behaviors and narrow interests.
  • Some may exhibit high intelligence, strong memory, and unique thinking patterns.
  • Observant, resilient, and often have a strong sense of fairness and justice.

Remember that only a qualified professional can assess and diagnose autism. If you suspect you or someone you know may be autistic, seeking professional evaluation is essential. Self-diagnosis is not recommended.

A female psychologist works with an adult with autism in the office. (Credit: Miridda/Shutterstock)

Diagnosis in adults

Adults are seeking formal autism diagnoses in record numbers. Specialists in autism report that although no formal data on diagnosis rates in adults exist, interest in evaluations is higher than ever. Waiting lists for evaluations can be six months to two years long and cost anywhere from $3,800 to $5,800, according to providers. Insurance coverage varies.

Experts say social media seems to be driving this trend. On social media, people are exposed to neurodivergent adults and their experiences and see themselves in those images.

While there are well-established procedures for diagnosing autism in children, few specific diagnostic tests exist for adults. Over the last decade, certain evaluations have become more prevalent in adult assessments. Generally speaking, the names of these evaluations are convoluted. Some studies have suggested that Module 4 of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (psychologists call it ADOS-2), is useful for diagnosing autism in adults.

Others use the Social Responsiveness Scale for Adults, Second Edition (SRS-2), or both. Experts say that assessments are not essential for a diagnosis. Adults can be diagnosed by psychiatrists, psychologists, and general practitioners who specialize in autism.

How do you support autistic adults?

Supporting autistic adults involves understanding their unique needs and providing a supportive environment. Here are some ways you can offer support:

Educate Yourself:

  • Learn about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to understand its characteristics, strengths, and challenges.
  • Recognize that each autistic individual is unique, and their experiences may differ.

Be Patient and Non-judgmental:

  • Autistic adults may communicate differently or need more time to process information. Be patient and avoid rushing them.
  • Avoid making assumptions or judgments based on their behavior.


  • Use clear and straightforward language.
  • Be attentive and listen actively.
  • Autistic adults may express themselves in various ways, including through writing or art.

Respect Sensory Needs:

  • Some autistic individuals are sensitive to sensory stimuli (e.g., lights, sounds, textures). Be mindful of their environment.
  • Ask about their preferences regarding sensory experiences.

Social Interaction:

  • Respect their boundaries. Some autistic adults prefer solitude or have specific social preferences.
  • Encourage social connections without pressure. Understand that socializing can be challenging for them.

Advocate for Inclusion:

  • Promote inclusive environments at work, school, and in the community.
  • Encourage employers and educators to provide reasonable accommodations.

Support Mental Health:

  • Autistic adults may experience anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions.
  • Encourage seeking professional help when needed.
  • Validate their feelings and emotions.

Celebrate Strengths:

  • Autistic individuals often have unique talents and interests. Encourage and celebrate their strengths.
  • Provide opportunities for them to explore their passions.

Remember that everyone’s needs are different, so it’s essential to communicate openly and adapt your support based on the individual’s preferences.