ADHD and Autism: Understanding the Two Conditions

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Different neurodevelopmental conditions can share some similar symptoms. Some common symptoms that a few neurodevelopmental disorders have include issues with staying still or paying attention, poor concept of personal space, impulsive behavior, and learning issues.

These symptoms are also some of the distinctive symptoms of two common neurodevelopmental conditions: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder.

Among the many neurodevelopmental disorders, these two have several significant overlapping signs, symptoms, and characteristics — so much so that a regular person may confuse one for the other.

In this blog, we’ll guide you through differentiating the two disorders, understanding each one, and exploring possible treatment options.

ADHD vs Autism: How Are They Different?

Both ADHD and autism are neurodevelopmental conditions that typically manifest during childhood or teenage years. Although the two share several symptoms and may seem the same on the surface, they are very different diagnoses.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is one of the more common neurodevelopmental disorders in the world. Between 2016 and 2019 alone, six million Americans from three to 17 years old are diagnosed with ADHD. 

Individuals with ADHD generally have a hard time curbing their impulsivity and have high distractibility. They find it difficult to focus on a single task, pay attention to people, or sit still. 

Oftentimes, those with ADHD — especially kids — will dislike or avoid things that require their full attention or concentration. They tend to get bored quickly and lose interest in various activities. When communicating, they are more likely to interrupt others.

What Is Autism?

According to the CDC, one in 44 American kids are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Unlike ADHD, autism is characterized by difficulties navigating neurotypical social norms, trouble understanding emotions, and having fidgeting or repetitive behaviors. They also tend to stim — repetitive, self-stimulatory behavior like fidgeting, rocking, or other body movements — to soothe or calm themselves down.

Rather than getting bored of activities quickly, those with autism do the opposite. They prefer to stick to their routine and special interests, sometimes to the point of obsession. Disrupting their routine can potentially result in distress or confusion. In extreme cases, disruptions can cause meltdowns and even greater communication difficulties.

Individuals on the autism spectrum also generally exhibit speech delays or unusual speech patterns and sensory sensitivity, such as being under-reactive to touch or over-reactive to sound. 

Diagnosing ADHD and Autism

There is no single test for diagnosing either ADHD or autism. Instead, psychiatrists, neurologists, and other medical professionals rely on the guidelines and criteria set by the American Psychology Association (APA) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth edition (DSM-5) to recognize and diagnose both conditions.

Health care professionals take a look at the individual’s developmental history and behavior then make a diagnosis based on the symptoms they present.

For an ADHD diagnosis, medical professionals look for a persistent pattern of inattention or hyperactivity impulsivity — primarily a pattern that interferes with the individual’s overall development and functioning. 

Using the DSM-5 criteria, they look for at least six symptoms each for both inattention or hyperactivity and impulsivity. These include:

  • Often makes careless mistakes at work or school
  • Forgetfulness with daily activities
  • Does not listen when spoken to directly
  • Often fidgets, squirms, or stims
  • Talks excessively
  • Has difficulty waiting for their turn

An autism diagnosis can be given as early as 18 months, though most people do not receive a final diagnosis until they are older. Getting an early diagnosis helps ensure proper support for children with ASD.

Some of DSM-5 criteria for an autism diagnosis include:

  • Deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication
  • Intense or abnormal fixation on specific interests
  • Inflexible behavior and difficulty coping with change
  • Repetitive behaviors or motor movements
  • Limited social interactions, especially ones they initiate themselves
  • Difficulties in forming, maintaining, and understanding relationships

Treating ADHD and Autism

Despite the similarities in their symptoms and how cases are diagnosed, ADHD and autism have very different treatment options. One of the main differences in treatments is the lack of direct pharmaceutical treatment or medication for autism. 

Many individuals diagnosed with ADHD are prescribed stimulants to partially treat their symptoms. In particular, these medications can significantly decrease the person’s impulsivity and help them concentrate. 

Other treatment options for ADHD are psychotherapy or counseling, behavioral therapy, and skills training.

Medications for ASD mostly focus on alleviating certain symptoms, like anxiety. However, there is still a wide range of available treatments for autism. In general, these treatment options focus on providing support in the form of therapy or counseling to help the individual cope with their symptoms and adapt to societal norms. 

These include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA)
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Social skills therapy

Can You Have Both ADHD and Autism?

Yes, you can. However, this has not always been the case. Before 2013, the APA did not permit dual diagnoses of ADHD and autism. This changed following a study where the CDC noted that a significant percentage of kids with ADHD were also on the autism spectrum. 

The CDC study estimates that 14% of children diagnosed with ADHD also have autism. However, other studies estimate higher percentages of dual diagnoses between 15% to 25%.

If you think you may be on the spectrum or have ADHD, it is best to seek a mental health care professional for a consultation.

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