Adult-onset autoimmune diabetes is a heterogeneous disease that is characterized by a reduced genetic load, a less intensive autoimmune process and a mild metabolic decompensation at onset compared with young-onset type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM). The majority of patients with adult-onset autoimmune diabetes do not require insulin treatment for at least 6 months after diagnosis. Such patients are defined as having latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), which is distinct from classic adult-onset T1DM. The extensive heterogeneity of adult-onset autoimmune diabetes is apparent beyond the distinction between classic adult-onset T1DM and LADA. LADA is characterized by genetic, phenotypic and humoral heterogeneity, encompassing different degrees of insulin resistance and autoimmunity; this heterogeneity is probably a result of different pathological mechanisms, which have implications for treatment. The existence of heterogeneous phenotypes in LADA makes it difficult to establish an a priori treatment algorithm, and therefore, a personalized medicine approach is required. In this Review, we discuss the current understanding and gaps in knowledge regarding the pathophysiology and clinical features of adult-onset autoimmune diabetes and highlight the similarities and differences with classic T1DM and type 2 diabetes mellitus.