According to a finding of new study, published in the journal Autism, individuals who learn they are autistic at a younger age can have a heightened quality of life and sense of well-being in adulthood. The research also found that telling a child that they are autistic at a younger age empowers them by providing access to support and a foundation for self-understanding that helps them thrive later in life.
Researchers, for the first time, directly investigated whether learning if one is autistic at a younger age is associated with better adult outcomes. Many autistic people, particularly females, ethnic/racial minorities, and people with limited resources, are diagnosed years after the characteristics are first noticed.
The study was carried out by a team of autistic and non-autistic students and academic researchers. Around 78 autistic university students were surveyed, sharing how they found out they were autistic and how they felt about their diagnosis.
One of the co-authors, Dr. Steven Kapp, lecturer in Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, was diagnosed with and informed of his autism at the age of 13. He said, “Students who learned they were autistic when they were younger felt happier about their lives than people who were diagnosed at an older age. Our study shows that it is probably best to tell people they are autistic as soon as possible in a balanced, personal, and developmentally appropriate way. Learning one is autistic can be empowering because it helps people understand themselves and also helps them connect with other people like them.”
He added, “Learning about autism at an older age is associated with more positive emotions about a diagnosis - especially relief. This finding makes sense, although emotional reactions are often very complex and unique to each person - there has been a lot of emerging research showing that relief is a common response to an autism diagnosis in adulthood.”
The study suggests that parents should not wait for children to become adults to tell them they are autistic. Findings also suggest that parents should tell their children they are autistic in ways that help them understand and feel good about who they are. One participant said, “I would tell my child that autism is a different way of thinking, that it can be challenging and beautiful and powerful and exhausting and impactful, that autistic people deserve to be themselves, to be proud of their identity, and have supports that help them meet their needs.”
Co-lead author of the study, Bella Kofner, 24, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and informed of her autism at the age of 10, said, “This is the first study, to our knowledge, to demonstrate that learning at a young age that one is autistic may have positive impacts on emotional health among autistic university students. Hopefully, this finding may begin to address concerns parents have about when to talk to their child about autism.”
She added, “When the conversation begins is particularly important. Our findings suggest that learning at a younger age that one is autistic can help autistic people develop self-understanding and access support, providing the foundations for well-being in adulthood.”