ADHD vs. Autism: What’s the Difference?

boy looking away from teacher

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are two conditions affecting executive functioning that fall under the neurodivergent umbrella. Neurodiversity is a term that describes the differences in brain function from person to person. A neurodivergent person has a brain that functions and processes stimuli in a non-typical way. 

Many neurodivergent conditions have overlapping or similar symptoms, and it is common for people with autism or ADHD to have other developmental disorders or learning disabilities. However, the symptoms of ADHD and autism overlap so much that a proper diagnosis is sometimes challenging. 

What exactly is the difference between ADHD and autism? What symptoms overlap, and what are the differences between the two? And what can people with autism and ADHD do to lead happy and productive lives? This article will answer all these questions and provide valuable resources for families of children with autism and ADHD.  

Key Takeaways

ADHD and Autism have overlapping or similar symptoms, so making the correct diagnosis is challenging at times.

Children with ADHD and autism benefit from early interventions like ABA and physical and occupational therapy.

It is possible to have autism and ADHD.

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The Difference Between ADHD and Autism

ADHD and autism are two different neurodevelopmental disorders. However, the two conditions affect social interactions and how a person’s brain responds to external stimuli. The commonality between the two is especially prevalent in children with ADHD and autism because they haven’t learned the skills or tools needed to address developmental delays and appropriate social interactions.

ADHD is typically defined by hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, and difficulty focusing or staying on task. The most common traits of autism include poor communication skills, repetitive behaviors, and unusual reactions to stimuli like noise, smells, tastes, and touch.

Both conditions can cause difficulty with social interactions, changes in routine, impulsive or non-typical behaviors, and difficulties in school or group settings. 

Having your child evaluated by medical, early childhood, and mental health professionals experienced in diagnosing ADHD and autism is central to receiving the best types of early intervention. 

What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. Children with ADHD often struggle with self-esteem, social relationships, and schoolwork.

Symptoms of ADHD include: 

  • Trouble paying attention to details, making careless mistakes
  • Difficulty staying focused on tasks or play
  • Appears not to listen, even when spoken to directly
  • Difficulty following through on instructions; failure to finish schoolwork or chores
  • Struggles organizing tasks and activities
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks that require focused mental effort
  • Often loses or misplaces items needed for tasks or activities
  • Easily distracted
  • Often forgets to do regular, daily activities
  • Fidgets with hands or feet; has difficulty staying in their seat
  • Needs to constantly be in motion or switching from one activity to the next
  • Runs and climbs in situations where it isn’t appropriate
  • Struggles with playing or doing activities quietly
  • Talks a lot and doesn’t understand the flow of conversation
  • Blurts out answers and interrupts the questioner
  • Struggles waiting for their turn
  • Interrupts or intrude on others’ conversations, games, or activities
  • Ability to hyperfocus on a preferred task or activity
  • Difficulty with transitions 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that nearly 10% of children have ADHD. ADHD is more prevalent in boys than girls; however, the condition may be underdiagnosed in girls because they often present differently than their male peers. 

ADHD cannot be prevented or cured and is not caused by sugar, vaccines, or poor parenting skills. However, with proper treatment, possibly including medication and behavioral therapy, many children with an ADHD diagnosis learn to control hyper and impulsive behaviors and build on their strengths. 

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What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects how the brain receives and interprets information. Those with ASD typically have problems with social interaction and communication. They engage in repetitive behaviors or interests.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms of autism include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Not responding to their name by 9 months 
  • Lack of facial expressions by 9 months
  • Does not play simple interactive games like pat-a-cake by 12 months of age
  • Uses few or no gestures by 12 months
  • Does not share interests with others by 15 months
  • Does not point to objects of interest by 18 months
  • No noticeable empathy or awareness when others are hurt or upset by age 2
  • Lack of interactive play with other children by age 3
  • No imaginative or creative play by age 4
  • Does not sing, dance, or act for you by age 5
  • Lines up toys or other objects and gets upset when the order is changed
  • Repeatedly uses words and phrases 
  • Always plays with the same items or toys
  • They focus on parts of an object (for example, wheels)
  • Becomes upset by minor changes in structure or routine
  • Has obsessive interests
  • Repetitive behaviors like flapping hands, rocking, or spinning
  • Has unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

It is estimated that 1 in 36 children have ASD, and it is more common among boys than girls. There is no known cause for ASD, and vaccines, diet, parenting, or other external stimuli do not cause it. 

However, it is more common among children who:

  • Have an immediate family member with autism
  • Carry certain genetic mutations
  • Have fragile X syndrome and other genetic disorders
  • Are born to older parents
  • Had a low birth weight
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Similarities Between ADHD and Autism

ADHD vs. autism may look different at first glance; there are many ways symptoms of ADHD and autism may look similar; in some cases, a child may have both. Data shows that 80% of children with autism also receive an ADHD diagnosis.  

Both conditions affect executive functioning, social skills, and interactions with other people. 

People with autism or ADHD may:

  • Have difficulty interpreting and reacting to social cues
  • Behave impulsively or erratically
  • Have difficulty with transitions or changes
  • Become hyperfocused or obsessive on a topic or activity
  • Think creatively and outside the box
  • Have abundant energy
  • Be overly friendly with strangers (not understanding social norms)
  • Have self-esteem issues or depression
  • Struggle in traditional learning environments
  • Have additional learning disorders like dyslexia or dyscalculia

ADHD and autism are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), making children eligible for special education services.  They are also covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), under which children can review a 504 for special accommodations. 

Critical Differences Between ADHD and Autism

 ADHD and autism share some similar traits, but there are a few key differences between the two.

Communication

Both conditions interfere with communication skills. However, children with autism are more likely to lack language skills and not understand appropriate communicative gestures like eye contact or handshakes. Children with ADHD are more prone to interrupting, speaking quickly and loudly, and not understanding the give-and-take of conversation.

Focus

Individuals with ADHD are able to hyperfocus on tasks or areas of interest but more often struggle to pay attention or complete tasks. Those with autism tend to repeat the same activities or play with the same toys as part of their routine, often excluding others from their play.

Sensory

People with ADHD and autism both deal with sensory input issues. Those with ADHD can be easily overstimulated and easily distracted, causing hyperactivity. People with autism may struggle to regulate their emotions when introduced to bothersome stimuli like loud noises or bright lights. 

Routine

Routine is important to children with autism and ADHD. It helps them avoid sensory overload and feel a sense of control and expectation for their day. Children with ADHD may also find disruptions to their routine troublesome, but the disruptions may be caused by their inability to stay on task or focus, resulting in impulsive or hasty decisions or actions. 

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Diagnosis and Treatment

Only doctors, like pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists, can diagnose ADHD and autism. However, special education and early childhood teachers are often able to recognize the early signs of autism and ADHD and could be your first source of a referral.  

Misdiagnosing ADHD as autism and the reverse can occur because these conditions share some similar symptoms. Some people have both ADHD, which can make the diagnosing process even more difficult; it might be challenging to pinpoint which symptoms are related to ADHD vs. autism. 

ADHD is generally diagnosed in early childhood but often not before the age of four or five. A diagnosis involves a parental evaluation of behavior observations and teacher reports. These evaluations use rating scales to assess inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms, primarily focusing on behaviors.

Autism is also typically diagnosed in early childhood, usually by age two or three. An autism diagnosis involves observation, developmental history, assessments, and parental interviews. It may also include observational notes from caregivers if the child attends preschool or childcare. An autism diagnosis focuses on developmental milestones, social communication challenges, and behaviors.

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Living with ADHD and Autism

Living with ADHD and autism isn’t always easy, but with the proper support, individuals can improve their daily skills and interactions. Early intervention and a proper diagnosis are critical. The earlier symptom management starts, the more your child can include these skills in their day-to-day functioning.  

There are many different treatment options for ADHD and autism.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Behavioral Interventions or ABA therapy 
  • Medications: Medications for ADHD 
  • Educational accommodations such as Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or 504 Plans 
  • Parent training and family education
  • Lifestyle modifications
  • Support Groups
  • Assistive technology
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Sensory integration therapy
  • Alternative therapies
  • Social skills training

The interventions and therapies will be based on the individual’s needs, developmental skills, strengths, and interests. The goal is to create a well-rounded, individual treatment plan that best meets the person’s goals and desires. 

Resources

For additional information on autism and ADHD, visit the sites below.

Autism

ADHD

Autism & ADHD

Author

  • L. Elizabeth Forry

    L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with fifteen years of classroom teaching experience. She earned a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from The University of North Dakota and has a Bachelor of Arts in English and one in Music from Lebanon Valley College. She has taught children in Japan, Washington D.C., Chicago, and suburban Maryland. She is trained as a reading therapist, has a TEFL certification, and has done extensive work with children regarding autism, ADHD, mental health, social-emotional development, and gender development. She has written curriculum for children and educators and has led training sessions for parents and educators on various topics related to early childhood development. She is the mother of two boys and resides outside of Annapolis, Maryland.

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