Dear Dr. Roach: I am writing about a lifelong problem I’ve had with food. An article in my local newspaper spelled out exactly what I’ve lived through for 55 years. The article was about an 8-year-old boy who is autistic and caused problems by bringing his own food into a sports grill. It described him as “autistic,” “a special-needs child” and that he “only eats 15 types of food.” Also, it noted that, to the boy, “certain foods smell different … look different … has to look a certain way.” This is exactly my life story. I eat only a limited number of foods, too. Many look bad, smell bad or are too pungent for me to eat. I also can’t tolerate many smells. Many high-pitched noises and most music and machinery sounds are extremely irritating. I’ve been ridiculed, punished, harassed, lectured to and bullied by my elementary-school teachers for my habits. This was done in front of my classmates to maximize my shame.
I am now a poorly adjusted adult with many problems. I am single, have no friends, have lost many job opportunities, had no girlfriends or dates after high school and can’t eat in public places. I often am nauseated by the things around me, and have frequent vomiting spells. I am socially awkward and often don’t understand why others get so angry with me. The boy in the article is the only other person I’ve ever heard of with the same problems as me.
Could I be autistic, too, in my 60s? How do I get diagnosed? Have you heard of others like me?
Dear R.R.: I’m very sorry to hear of your experiences. Nobody should be subjected to what you have been.
Autism is a disorder of development, with poor function in language and social interactions, usually with repetitive movements. However, autism probably is not a single disease, but multiple diseases that have a similar appearance to parents and doctors. Most importantly, autism is a spectrum of illness, ranging from very severely affected people to people with clear deficits, but which can be in large part masked through other strengths the affected individual may possess.
Autism in the 1960s was considered a rare disease, with prevalence rates of about five affected individuals per 10,000 population, with males affected about five times more often than females. In contrast, the most recent data now show 147 per 10,000.
There is no way for me to tell you whether autism is the correct diagnosis for you. However, my guess based on what you have told me it that it’s likely you would be considered to be on the autistic spectrum.
I have certainly seen adults diagnosed as autistic, but never someone as old as you. If you want to further look into this as a diagnosis, I would find someone very experienced in diagnosing autism and in care of autistic adults. deal with your challenges. Autism Speaks, a wonderful group, has a list of support groups, including ones specifically designed for autistic adults, at autismspeaks.org.
Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.