ADHD and Autism – What’s the Difference?

Statistics indicate that around 8.4 percent of children suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Approximately 1 in 59 children are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. What’s the difference between these two conditions? Is it possible for a child to have both? More importantly, what are your next steps if you suspect that your child has one of these conditions?

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at both conditions, from both a medical and parental perspective. We’ll also be offering you some helpful tips from seasoned moms who have experience with both conditions.

Examining the Similarities and Cross-Overs

Parents often struggle to determine whether their child has autism or ADHD because the two conditions can display themselves in similar ways; there’s a sort of overlapping in signs and symptoms. Children with either condition may exhibit inability to pay attention, but the application and reasoning may be different.

Impulse control can also a problem for both children with either condition, but the cause is often different. Children with autism may seem hyperactive, but it could be due to overstimulation or under-stimulation. How do you untangle these overlapping symptoms to determine what you should say to your child’s doctor?

We suggest that you start by closely examining a few behaviors.

Inattentiveness – Autism vs. ADHD

Difficulty in paying attention is a trait that can be seen in children with ADHD, as well as those with autism. However, you’re likely to notice some distinct differences in their lack of attention.

Children with ADHD may struggle to sit still through almost anything. Subject matter and interest rarely matter. Quite simply, they seem to have trouble sitting still. Another clue is that children with ADHD often tend to focus better mentally when they’re engaged in physical movement, such as tapping a pencil or rocking in their chair. Our instinct is to tell them to stop, but studies have shown that this kind of movement could actually help them learn better.

Children with autism may struggle to focus on a few subjects, but they have laser-like focus when they run into a subject matter that interests them. Some believe it’s only in subject matters related to school, but it doesn’t have to be.

Your child may spend hours pouring over baseball facts but may have zero interest in math or reading. They may be able to spend hours talking about the Guinness Book of World Records but totally space off if you try to expand into a broader subject matter (such as asking your child how much flour it must have taken to make the world’s biggest cookie). The interest is not determined by anyone or anything but your child, but you know when it’s there.

Hyperactivity – Autism vs. ADHD

Both children with autism and ADHD can suffer from hyperactivity, but the way it manifests is often different.

With a child who has ADHD, the hyperactivity is generally due to an inability to focus. Their brain is struggling to hold onto a single thought or follow order. It’s also a symptom of their impulse control issues. They might talk constantly or interrupt others – often without ever being aware that they’re doing it. It may seem as though they always have to have the last word, or they may blurt things out without thinking about how it will affect the feelings of others.

You’ll notice these behaviors, day or night, at school or in play. It’s ever-present. It’s in everything your child does. They’re more rambunctious in play. A little more daring. Perhaps even a bit reckless. They’ll jump off dangerous things without thinking. They’ll reach out and touch things that are breakable or that could hurt them. Essentially, you may feel like a broken record and a massive amount of stress from the constant activity of your child.

Hyperactivity in children with autism is often different. You don’t notice it all the time. In fact, you may only notice it during particularly stressful situations. Or when there is a change to their day or situation. Or something scary. Or they’re surrounded by a lot of lights or strange noises.

They might start flapping their hands or arms. They may start to bounce on one foot. Your child could start pacing or running. They could even hit or punch themselves. These are signs that your child’s brain is either seeking more stimulation (most often seen when there is change or something stressful going on), or it’s trying to drown out stimulation (generally seen in high-sensory situations). These behaviors may not be present when your child is happy and content.

Social Interactions – Autism vs. ADHD

Both children with autism and ADHD can struggle in social situations, but the cause of their awkwardness is often quite different. For children with ADHD, the issue may be that they play too rough with other kids, or they say things that hurt their friends’ feelings (often without even being aware). Their impulse control can lead to recklessness, which may also be off-putting for other kids their age.

Children with autism tend to be socially awkward. They struggle with concepts like sharing and turn-taking (or may even be vehemently against it). They often steer conversations over to topics of interest and have few to no interest in the topics that interest others. Most struggle with making direct eye contact, and they rarely use physical gestures when communicating. They may either hate being touched or they might seek out touch in strange ways. Children with autism may even show little to no interest in engaging with their peers.

Routine and Structure – Autism vs. ADHD

Structure and routine can be one of the most telling differences between children with autism and ADHD.

Children with ADHD often do best when there’s an adventure around every corner. They’re not worried about having lunch at the same time every day, and if you suggest a trip to the park, last minute, before you enjoy a nap, they’re not going to give you any trouble! They often thrive when parents can think on their feet and challenge them in new ways.

Children with autism tend to be the exact opposite. They often struggle with change and shifts in their routine. They tend to do best when they know what to expect. Their schedule and routine are important. They thrive in predictable environments with low stress levels. Many even prefer to eat similar foods (only red foods, please!) or have an attachment to specific items in their day (that special snuggly blanket during nap). They would prefer you avoid all surprises.

(I could ask my son on the autism spectrum to put away his crayons so we could have ice cream and he’d have a meltdown. I learned how to work around this by giving him a five-minute warning and by sticking to a consistent schedule.)

Is It Possible for a Child to Have Both?

Sadly, since both conditions are neurological in nature, there is some overlap. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around 14 percent of children have both autism and ADHD. Science does not yet fully understand what causes either condition, but genetics are thought to play a major factor in both.

Diagnosing and Treating ADHD and Autism – What’s the Difference?

ADHD can often be diagnosed by a child’s pediatrician. They may want to rule out conditions related to hearing problems, sleep disorders, and learning difficulties to be certain that it’s ADHD, but a specialist is rarely required. However, you can request a referral if you believe it will be helpful to your child.

If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, your child’s doctor may suggest a few interventions, including:

  • behavioral therapy
  • medications
  • additional support in school.

Autism typically requires a more in-depth analysis, so you may likely be referred to a specialist (we were referred to a developmental pediatrician). Usually, children are asked to complete a series of tests or tasks while under observation. It can take hours to complete, so be prepared for the appointment. Plan a lunch and explain the appointment to your child (to the best of your abilities).

If autism is suspected, your child’s primary doctor may send you to several different kinds of specialists. There may be genetic specialists to help determine if another condition is at fault for your child’s symptoms.

Note that data suggests that as many as 83 percent of the children diagnosed with autism have at least one other developmental disorder, and at least 10 percent have at least on psychiatric disorder. As such, your child may be referred to other specialists as well to determine if there are any co-occuring conditions, such as social anxiety, a mood disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder.

(Note that these are also common misdiagnoses among children with autism, so if you’re struggling to get an autism diagnosis but are hearing a lot of these, you may be on to something!)

Treatment plans for children with autism also tend to be more intensive. They may include:

  • Educational interventions to help them in school,
  • Occupational therapy or play therapy,
  • Sensory integration,
  • Counseling and/or behavioral therapy,
  • Speech therapy.

You may even be encouraged to attend a few classes or interventions for yourself; these are aimed at helping you better understand your child’s condition, and how to successfully parent them. We highly suggest you participate in as many as possible.

Whether you think your child has autism, ADHD, or perhaps a mixture of both, take comfort in knowing that there is more information and help out there these days. Interventions and accessibility are improving. Educate yourself, learn what you need to know about your child’s condition, and explore new ways of parenting. You and your child will get through this challenging time and find a way to bond in a happier and healthier way.


About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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