Autism vs. ADHD: Differences & Similarities

On its own, autism no longer is classified as a singular diagnosis. The symptoms can be mistaken for ADHD very easily.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
January 9, 2024
min read

Symptoms Of Autism and ADHD

ADHD and autism are often mistaken, due to their close similarities in the initial parts of their development.

Kids with one of the conditions can show problems with staying focused and communicating with others. While they both exhibit qualities that are the same in some ways, they are two disorders of different natures.

Autism and ADHD Symptoms

While autism and ADHD have different symptoms, they also have some symptoms in common. Read on to see which symptoms differ and which they have in common.

autism and adhd symptoms

Common ADHD symptoms

  • Gets distracted very easily - Loses attention in situations where the focus is needed, such as in school or a working environment among adults. Easily sidetracked.
  • Jump from tasks at a rapid pace or becomes bored with doing them - This can happen at any time, but is common in situations where the person diagnosed is in a place where they don't want to be.
  • Poor concentration - The only way to focus could be to do one task at a time.
  • Talking too much - People with ADHD often go on without realizing that they've been talking for longer than is necessary. Also, they may say things without giving much thought to what they're saying.
  • Hyperactive - Too much energy at inappropriate times and difficulty staying in one spot for long periods, such as in a classroom.
  • Too much movement - The ability to stay still is impossible to do at times.
  • Gets in the way of conversations - Constantly interrupts conversations inappropriately and causes disturbances in the activity being conducted.

Common ASD symptoms

  • Problems with socializing and social awkwardness - Autistic people will often have trouble talking to their peers and others around them.
  • Deep focus on items - Autistic people often find interest in things that may appear either complex or mundane, but only for single pieces.
  • Tantrums - This is especially common in children with the disorder. Tantrums sometimes happen due to the inability of a subject to effectively communicate.

Symptoms That ADHD and Autism Have in Common

Although both disorders aren't the same and are treated by dissimilar means, people diagnosed with ASD and ADHD have symptoms of an identical nature.

Shared Symptoms of Autism and ADHD

Furthermore, those that are diagnosed with each might exhibit problems that aren't typical of either yet cause a big strain on their day-to-day activities.

  • Impulsiveness - The tendency to do things when it's not appropriate, such as speaking over people, standing up, and moving around.
  • Unable to maintain focus - The external goings-on can distract ADHD individuals, the same as autism. Both harbor symptoms that make it easy to become distracted by one's imagination.
  • Executive functioning difficulties - Unable to properly organize, perform tasks, and finish up on projects they begin.
  • Problems socializing - Autism and ADHD people can show great difficulty in handling social interactions well. This can make it very hard for them to speak with their peers and workmate from the high level of awkwardness that's shown.
  • Problems with learning - While ADHD and autism don't always rule out a high degree of intelligence, the symptoms presented by them can make learning a chore, For example, a child with autism might have tantrums resulting in frequent classroom disruptions or time spent outside of school.
  • Problems with the senses - Responds negatively to being touched, bright lights, and specific sounds, such as beeping and humming.
  • Lack of maturity - Handles frustrations poorly and in ways that don't match their age.

Although autism and ADHD traits are identical in their appearance, their causes are vastly different.

An autistic person has social issues stemming from having no experience with speech that is imitative and an inability to read body language. On the other hand, the social problems among ADHD individuals can stem from impulsiveness and non-conformist attitudes when in a group.

adhd vs autism

Causes Of Autism vs. ADHD

Based on the findings by professionals, ADHD has five primary risk factors. Brain injuries are one of them. Another could be exposed to substances in the environment, such as lead paint. This exposure would occur during the women's prenatal period.

The consumption of tobacco and alcohol may also contribute to ADHD in a child. A premature birth could be the cause or even a birth weight that's low.

As for autism, risk factors are very similar to those of ADHD, except for brain injuries. Autism might also be present due to disorders associated with genetic development, with fragile x syndrome being one of them.

Exposure to the specific drug during early prenatal is a probable cause as well. Autism can be hereditary, where alterations in genes may boost the chances of a child having the disorder.

Older parents have a higher chance of having a child that receives an autism diagnosis. However, the reason why has yet to be identified.

Diagnosis of Autism vs. ADHD

Medical tests for ADHD and ASD are nonexistent. The diagnosis for each is predicated on observance, interviews with patients and parents, and general assessments of behavioral development.

Before an ASD or ADHD diagnosis can be made, psychologists rely on a series of tests and questions to narrow down the potential contributions to the problems being exhibited, like learning difficulties and anxiety.

Most of the time, ASD and ADHD are found in people when they're small children or even an infant. The entire process begins with a pediatrician screening kids for all the primary symptoms through sets of questions.

These questions usually concern their overall behavior and social development.

If more tests are needed, the pediatrician might advise a more thorough evaluation at a later date.

Mild cases of autism and ADHD are most often seen in some adults. The diagnosis usually is done by a psychologist or equivalent, but could also be given by a general physician.

The evaluation is carried out by a group of specialists. Some of them include pediatricians with experience in developmental disorders. Others could be doctors that are knowledgeable in child development. At times, they may also work with adults that have either disorder.

Treatment for Autism vs. ADHD

Although the diagnosis and causes of ADHD and autism are at times identical, the treatments aren't alike. This is due to ADHD having medications used to combat symptoms, while no such pharmaceuticals exist for ASD.

ADHD isn't a spectrum disorder, but autism is. This means that the severity of symptoms in people with autism range from mild to severe, though can be better managed with therapy. The most extreme cases can disable someone and leave them unable to live a life of their own.

Treatments for autism are plenty and are based on one's needs and symptoms. The most popular treatment is the use of pharmaceuticals, yet these are given to lower certain characteristics of the disorder, and not the disorder itself.

For instance, a child might be given medication to help them with anxiety issues they might be experiencing. Another could be behavioral therapy. It helps boost skill levels and mitigate behaviors that are negative, like tantrums and a lack of composure.

Speech therapy is also needed for some with ASD.

Some autistic people have problems talking or are entirely nonverbal. Some retailers cannot have a conversation or socialize in public areas.

Occupational therapy is also common since many ASD patients have motor problems and sensory ailments making it difficult for them to be around bright areas and irritating sounds.

There's also therapy for social skills to assist with social interaction and help with learning how to make friends.

ADHD, it's treated with medications that can lower negative impulses and help them retain focus in everyday life. The medications are sometimes classified as stimulants and are prescribed heavily depending on age.

Other treatments involve training in skills, general counseling, and a similar behavioral therapy. There are children with ADHD that undergo applied behavior analysis, a treatment primarily given to people on the spectrum.

Key Similarities Between ASD And ADHD

Here are the major similarities between ASD and ADHD:

  • Stimming - Repetitive motions such as nail biting and general anxiety.
  • Sensory trouble - Sensitivity to light and audible noises.
  • Interaction problems - Interception is an intestinal condition where part of its lining folds into itself.
  • The nervous system that's based on interest - Motivated by rewards, the feeling of importance, and punishment.
  • Problem with regulating emotions - Respond negatively to situations likely to stir up emotions.
  • Problems making eye contact - Trouble with looking people in the eyes and focusing their stare on people in conversation.

Autism vs. ADHD In Females

In women with autism and ADHD, rates of self-harm are high, as is suicide.

Risk can increase when other disorders are present. Self-harm can happen when attempting to control the senses. It's also high in young girls with ADHD. They're more likely to keep their negative symptoms inside than boys are.

Studies show that suicide and ADHD are correlated, regardless of gender. As for children in general, adolescents with ADHD have one of the highest rates of suicidal thoughts.

The same applies to autistic people. A study found that people on the spectrum are at an elevated risk of attempting suicide. They're also over twice as likely to die by suicide.

Autism vs. ADHD In Males

In men and boys with ADHD and autism, self-harm exists at elevated rates when compared to the population as a whole.

Young boys of toddler age to preteen engage in self-harm more than older men with both disorders do. Likely women, the risk may be boosted when more than one diagnosis is present on top of ASD and ADHD.

A child with autism might exhibit anxiety and receive a diagnosis for it, where the symptoms could trigger an absence of emotional control that advances to head banging, hair pulling, and other physical reactions.

Men with either disorder have a probable chance of attempting suicide more often than people with no disorder.

Autism and ADHD Together In Adults

At times, symptoms of ADHD and autism are hard to differentiate. They both can happen simultaneously.

Someone with ADHD might exhibit symptoms, like focusing intently on specific objects. When doing so, their behavior might not fit the description of someone with the disorder.

For this reason, a diagnosis isn't always made with clarity. A psychologist may think that only one disorder is the cause of certain symptoms. Based on findings by the CDC, about 14% of kids with ADHD also have autism.

Kids with both show more intense indications. Such children have a good chance of experiencing problems at school and poor social understanding.


Can you have autism and ADHD?

There are people with both autism and ADHD, though it's found more often in children that are at first diagnosed with ASD.

Other children have ADHD but show traits characteristic of autism, like an unusual focus on single items.

Can ADHD be mistaken for autism?

Since the symptom does look alike, there has been ancient improper diagnosis being made.

However, the detection rate of autism has increased through rigorous interviews and multiple tests. This lowered the risk of being incorrectly diagnosed.

Does my kid have ADHD or autism?

Determining whether a child has autism or ADHD isn't without its challenges. The characteristics can sometimes be too similar.

To prevent this, experts recommend that parents pay close attention to certain behaviors and if some of them correspond to symptoms not uncommon in one or the other.

Is ADHD just mild autism?

No, ADHD isn't mild autism. They both are conditions that can stem from abnormalities found in the brain, but both have numerous symptoms that overlap with one another.

Some of them can be mild to severe, so someone with ADHD can experience acute problems such as self-harm and little emotional control.

Why is autism often misdiagnosed as ADHD?

On its own, autism no longer is classified as a singular diagnosis. The symptoms can be mistaken for ADHD very easily.

Even seasoned doctors and psychiatrists can give a misdiagnosis. For this reason, numerous tests are now given to lower the instances of this happening, yet it remains a problem.

How does ADHD mask autism?

ADHD can lead to poor focus, such as keeping still or sitting in place. Autism can cap an interest in things and cause bad social skills.

They have symptoms that appear the same, though the repetition of spells found in those with ADHD can hide milder autistic manifestations.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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