How to Tell If Someone You Know Might Be on the Autism Spectrum

May 13th 2016

Laura Donovan

Autism awareness is on the rise in the United States.


A photo posted by @autism_appreciation on

According to the CDC, one in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. Given it's prevalence, it's not uncommon for Americans to wonder if they or someone they know might be on "the spectrum," which refers to the wide range of developmental disorders associated with autism.

A simple Google search shows no shortage of tests catering to people who want to know if they are autistic.


The Internet, of course, cannot properly diagnose specific people.

Dr. Tristram H. Smith, a professor of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told ATTN: that diagnosing autism should only be done by a specialist or multiple specialists.

Dr. Tristram Smith

In an April Reddit AMA, Dr. Smith wrote that researchers have found that "everyone has some characteristics of autism, and some people have more than others."

When asked if there are specific signs that a person is definitely autistic, Dr. Smith told ATTN: that the "short answer is no." However, he said that certain behavior patterns could be red flags that someone is unknowingly autistic. Here are some habits that could potentially mean a person is high on the spectrum.

1. They struggle with social functioning.

"The particular concern is that a person really doesn't seem aware of other people's perspectives, and it's not people who are aware but choose to ignore them, but people who just don't understand [other people's perspectives]," Dr. Smith said. "You see them talking in monologues even though people aren't paying attention or talking too loud or too soft."

Dr. Smith also suggested paying attention to normal social cues in interactions, such as eye contact and keeping a comfortable distance from others:

"Standing too close or too far and not really engaging with other people the way most people do when they're not only saying stuff, but using eye contact and gestures to kind of make sure that they're actually communicating and getting whatever they're trying to say across to the other person. If you saw someone who had that kind of concern, struggling in relationships, that might be a reason to think about a professional evaluation." — Dr. Tristram H. Smith

2. They're not very flexible.

Many people have routines and schedules to help their days go smoothly. Dr. Smith said that the situation "can get out of hand" when someone is completely inflexible about the order of things:

"It would be hard to get through life without having some things that you kind of do the same way all the time, and not having to think about them. But things can get out of hand if there are particular ways that things have to be arranged. Let's say in the house, or there's a particular schedule that has to be followed and you can't break from the schedule, or if you're so obsessed with a particular topic that you can't break away from it."

Dr. Smith said that these habits could be associated with other behavioral issues, but could also be red flags that someone might be autistic.

3. They have arbitrary obsessions or routines that don't make sense.


A photo posted by Autism Speaks (@autismspeaks) on

"One marker is whether the routine makes sense or just seems pointless," Dr. Smith said. "People differ in how much they rely on [certain routines to stay organized], but there's a purpose. These other things [are] like being obsessed with the weather patterns or having to have some arbitrary arrangement of the furniture [that] doesn't really matter. Yet [for these individuals], there's still something that's difficult for them to break away from."

4. They react in intense ways when a routine is broken.


It's important to look out for "the intensity with which [people] react if a routine is broken," according to Dr. Smith.

"We all get a little uncomfortable, we're a little bit out of our comfort zone if we have to vary from our usual way of doing things, but if they really have a meltdown, that's a sign too that that's a problem," Dr. Smith said.

The issue with people diagnosing themselves or others with autism.

Even if someone displays strong characteristics of autism, it is important to remember that only specialists can determine whether someone is autistic.

Some people, however, casually state that they think they are on the autism spectrum. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld came under fire in 2014 for saying he thought he might be on the spectrum. He went on to recant these comments following criticism.

Dr. Smith said that casual diagnoses are like a double-edged sword because they increase autism awareness but contribute to misunderstandings about the condition:

"On the positive sign, it's a sign of increased awareness and acceptance that people would go out of their way to say they have the disorder. On the other hand, there are all sorts of misunderstandings about what autism is. To have people kind of shooting off the hip and saying that somebody has autism or that they themselves has autism adds to those misunderstandings. So that is a problem, I think."

RELATED: A Doctor on Reddit Answered If Everyone Is Actually On the Autism Spectrum