OCD vs. Autism: Differences & Similarities

Are you wondering, "are autism and OCD related?". In this article, we will explore the differences and similarities between OCD and Autism.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 19, 2023
min read

OCD and Autism: How Do They Compare?

OCD and Autism are two conditions that are often misunderstood and confused with each other. While they share some similarities, they are fundamentally different.

What is OCD?

OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is a mental health condition that affects people of all ages and genders. People with OCD experience intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses (obsessions) that cause anxiety and distress.

To reduce their anxiety, they engage in repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). For example, someone with OCD may have an obsession with cleanliness and repeatedly wash their hands to reduce their anxiety.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that it affects people differently and to varying degrees.

Some people with Autism may have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, while others may have repetitive behaviors or interests.

Differences Between OCD and Autism

One of the main differences between OCD and Autism is the nature of the symptoms. OCD is characterized by intrusive, unwanted thoughts that cause anxiety, while Autism is characterized by difficulties with communication, social interaction, and behavior.

Another difference is the age of onset. OCD typically develops in late childhood or early adolescence, while Autism is usually diagnosed in early childhood.

Finally, the treatment for OCD and Autism is different. OCD is usually treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication, while Autism is treated with behavioral therapy and medication.

Similarities Between OCD and Autism

Despite the differences, there are some similarities between OCD and Autism. Both conditions involve repetitive behaviors or interests. People with OCD engage in compulsions to reduce their anxiety, while people with Autism may have repetitive behaviors or interests as a way of coping with the world around them.

Another similarity is that both conditions can cause significant distress and impairment in daily functioning. People with OCD may spend hours each day engaging in compulsions, while people with Autism may struggle with social interactions and communication.

Diagnosis and Assessment of OCD and Autism

Diagnosing OCD and Autism can be challenging, as both conditions share some common symptoms. However, there are specific criteria that medical professionals use to distinguish between the two.

To diagnose OCD, a mental health professional will look for the presence of obsessions and compulsions that cause significant distress or impairment in daily functioning. They may also conduct psychological testing to assess the severity of symptoms.

In contrast, diagnosing Autism involves assessing communication skills, social interactions, and behavior patterns.

Medical professionals use standardized tests such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) to evaluate these areas.

It's important to note that misdiagnosis can occur when it comes to both conditions. For example, a person with OCD may exhibit repetitive behaviors that are mistaken for Autism symptoms. Similarly, a person with Autism may have obsessive interests or routines that are confused with OCD symptoms.

Therefore, accurate diagnosis requires a thorough assessment by an experienced clinician who is familiar with both conditions.

Treatment Options for OCD and Autism

There are several treatment options available for both OCD and Autism. The most common treatment options include therapy and medication.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective form of therapy for people with OCD. CBT helps individuals learn to identify and challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs, which can reduce the frequency and severity of obsessions and compulsions.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a type of CBT that involves gradually exposing individuals to situations that trigger their obsessions while preventing them from engaging in compulsive behaviors. This can help individuals learn to manage their anxiety without relying on compulsions.

For Autism, behavioral therapies such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can be helpful. ABA focuses on teaching new skills through positive reinforcement, shaping behavior, and helping individuals develop social skills.

Social skills groups can also be beneficial for individuals with Autism, as they provide opportunities to practice social interactions in a supportive environment.

Medication can also be used to treat both OCD and Autism. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed for OCD as they can help reduce the symptoms of obsessions and compulsions. Antipsychotic medications may also be used in some cases.

For Autism, medication may be prescribed to manage specific symptoms such as aggression or hyperactivity. However, it's important to note that medication should not be used as a standalone treatment for Autism but rather in combination with behavioral therapies.

It's important to work with a qualified healthcare professional who specializes in treating OCD or Autism when considering treatment options. They can help determine the most effective course of action based on individual needs and circumstances.

How OCD and Autism Impact Daily Life

Both OCD and Autism can have a significant impact on daily life, affecting relationships, work/school, and social activities.

Relationships: People with OCD may find it challenging to maintain healthy relationships due to the time-consuming nature of their compulsions.

For example, someone who feels the need to check that all doors are locked multiple times before leaving the house may be late for appointments or dates, causing frustration for their partner.

Similarly, individuals with Autism may struggle with social interactions and communication, making it difficult to build and maintain relationships.

Work/School: OCD can interfere with work or school performance as individuals may spend hours each day engaging in compulsions instead of focusing on tasks.

This can lead to decreased productivity and increased stress levels. Similarly, Autism can affect academic or occupational achievement due to difficulties with communication and social interaction.

Social Activities: Engaging in social activities can be challenging for people with both OCD and Autism. Individuals with OCD may avoid participating in certain activities if they feel that they cannot engage in their compulsive behaviors while doing so.

For example, someone who is afraid of germs may avoid going to crowded places like concerts or festivals. People with Autism may also struggle with social activities due to difficulties with communication and understanding social cues.

It's important to note that while these conditions can present challenges in daily life, there are ways to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Seeking treatment from qualified healthcare professionals can help individuals learn coping strategies that allow them to participate more fully in daily activities.

Additionally, support groups for people living with these conditions can provide an opportunity for individuals to connect with others who share similar experiences.

Co-Occurring Conditions

It's not uncommon for individuals with OCD or autism to experience co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD. In fact, research has shown that up to 70% of individuals with OCD have at least one additional mental health condition.

Anxiety is a common co-occurring condition in both OCD and autism. People with OCD often experience high levels of anxiety related to their obsessions and compulsions.

Similarly, people with autism may experience anxiety related to social situations or changes in routine.

Depression is another co-occurring condition that can affect individuals with OCD or autism. The constant stress and frustration associated with managing symptoms can take a toll on mental health over time.

Additionally, the social isolation that can come with these conditions can contribute to feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

ADHD is a condition that commonly co-occurs with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Individuals with ASD may struggle with attention and concentration, making it difficult to complete tasks or follow through on plans. This can lead to frustration and difficulty achieving goals.

It's important for healthcare professionals to assess for the presence of co-occurring conditions when diagnosing and treating OCD or autism. Addressing these conditions alongside the primary diagnosis can improve overall outcomes and quality of life for individuals living with these conditions.

Treatment options for co-occurring conditions may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in treating anxiety and depression in individuals with OCD or autism. Medications such as antidepressants may also be prescribed to manage symptoms.

In conclusion, it's essential to recognize the potential presence of co-occurring conditions when assessing and treating individuals living with OCD or autism. By addressing all underlying mental health concerns simultaneously, healthcare professionals can provide comprehensive care that improves overall well-being and quality of life for those struggling with these challenging disorders.

Myths and Misconceptions About OCD and Autism

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding OCD and autism, which can lead to misunderstanding and stigma. Here are a few common myths:

  • Myth #1: OCD is just a quirk or personality trait.This is untrue. OCD is a serious mental health condition that can significantly impact daily life. It's characterized by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that cause anxiety and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that individuals feel compelled to do in order to reduce their anxiety.
  • Myth #2: Autism is caused by bad parenting.This myth has been debunked by scientific research. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
  • Myth #3: People with OCD or autism are dangerous or violent.This couldn't be further from the truth. People with OCD or autism are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. In fact, they are more likely to be the victims of violence due to their vulnerability.
  • Myth #4: People with OCD or autism lack empathy.This is simply not true. While people with autism may struggle with social interactions, they are capable of feeling empathy just like anyone else. Similarly, people with OCD often have intense feelings of empathy towards others, which can contribute to their anxiety.

It's important to challenge these myths and misconceptions in order to promote understanding and acceptance of individuals living with these conditions. By educating ourselves about the realities of OCD and autism, we can create more supportive environments for those affected by these challenging disorders.

While OCD and autism share some similarities, they are distinct conditions. OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder and is characterized by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions).

Autism, on the other hand, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior.

Though individuals with both conditions may experience difficulties with social interactions and repetitive behaviors, the underlying causes of these symptoms are different.

While the exact cause of OCD is not yet fully understood, it's believed to be related to a combination of genetic, environmental, and neurological factors. Autism is also thought to have a genetic component but may also be influenced by environmental factors.

It's important to note that while there may be some overlap in symptoms between OCD and autism, they require different treatment approaches.

Seeking an accurate diagnosis from a qualified healthcare professional is crucial in determining the most effective course of treatment for each individual's unique needs.


In conclusion, while OCD and Autism share some similarities, they are fundamentally different conditions. OCD is characterized by intrusive, unwanted thoughts that cause anxiety, while Autism is characterized by difficulties with communication, social interaction, and behavior.

If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD or Autism, it is important to seek professional help. With the right treatment, people with these conditions can lead fulfilling lives.


steven zauderer

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

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