Autism in adults

Autism is a lifelong condition. It causes differences in communication, social skills and behaviour. It shows up in many ways. The term autism spectrum disorder describes the full range of symptoms and behaviours, from mild to extreme. People have a wide range of challenges and strengths that can vary with age and over time.

Causes of autism

We do not know exactly what causes autism. Research shows that genetic factors are important.

Symptoms of autism in adults

The challenges in communication, social skills and behaviour vary for each person with autism. They can change over time as the person learns ways of coping and suppressing behaviours.

These are some common expressions of autism in adults. 

In social situations, adults with autism can:

  • avoid eye contact, or feel uncomfortable with eye contact
  • find it hard to make or keep friends, or prefer to be on their own
  • be very honest and transparent, which may make other people misinterpret them as being rude, or not interested in them 
  • find it hard to understand what others think or feel 
  • miss cues within conversation, such as body language, or whose turn it is to talk 
  • find it hard to say how they feel 
  • not understand sarcasm, certain phrases, or take things literally.

Adults with autism often:

  • have repetitive behaviours or urges to move that seem unrelated to what is going on — this may increase if they are stressed, anxious, or excited
  • prefer order, rules, and routines, and finding it hard to cope with change
  • experience sensations such as smell, touch, taste, texture, hearing, and pain at a different level to others
  • are able to focus on certain tasks or interests very closely, and understand them in great detail.

Diagnosing autism in adults

Some people find out they have autism as a tamaiti (child). Others may not find out until they are an adult.

If you think you may have autism, you may like to take a screening test. The results are not a diagnosis, but they may help you decide whether to seek a formal assessment.

Ritvo Autism and Asperger self test — Psychology Tools (external link)

To get a formal diagnosis of autism, you will need a detailed assessment by a psychologist or psychiatrist. They will also need information from someone who knew you when you were younger.

If you have severe mental health difficulties, your healthcare provider may be able to refer you for an assessment in the public health system.

You may choose to pay to see a private psychologist or psychiatrist.

Getting help with autism

The help and support you may need will depend on your individual needs. It may include:

  • learning more about autism
  • connecting with other people on the autism spectrum through support groups.

Employers, training institutes and other places may be able to help you with support, such as:

  • making the environment less stimulating
  • providing clearer instructions
  • giving you more time to complete tasks.

Altogether Autism

A free, nationwide ASD information and advisory service. You can also ask for personalised information answering your specific questions.

Autism New Zealand

Connecting people with autism through peer-based groups, provides support, training, advocacy, resources and information on ASD including Asperger syndrome.

Whaikaha Ministry of Disabled People

Information about support services for people with autism and their whānau.


Information about autism in tamariki, including links to support for parents and carers.

Clinical review

This content was written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. It has been adapted for Health Information and Services.

Clinical advisers — HealthInfo (external link)

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