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Have you ever been told that you need to focus and settle down? You might be told this if you’re on the autism spectrum, but you might also be told this if you have ADHD. Many of the features of autism and ADHD overlap, so proper diagnosis can be difficult, even for professionals. Many children are wrongly diagnosed and treated with one condition in mind, only to find out years later that they had the other one. To make things even more confusing, it’s common to have both conditions at the same time (Taurines, et al., 2012; Zhou, et al., 2020, pp. 61). So what are the key differences we use to tell them apart? Here are five signs that you have autism and not ADHD.
1) Problems with social interaction
Do you have trouble making and keeping friends? Research by Penn State College of Medicine shows that the biggest difference between autism and ADHD is having significant difficulties with social interactions (Mayes, et al., 2012, pp. 281; Zhou, et al., 2020, pp. 64). Forming friendships is a highly complex task involving verbal communication, nonverbal gestures, understanding unwritten social norms, finding common interests and enjoying common activities. Have you ever been told that you fail basic social conventions like eye contact or that you speak insensitively, even though you’re trying your hardest to get along? If successful social interactions seem impossible no matter what you try, then you’re more likely to have autism than ADHD. However, if you have no problem making friends, then you’re more likely to have ADHD than autism.
2) Restricted interests and habits
As a child, did you notice that your interests and habits were different from other children? Another key difference between autism and ADHD is restricted interests and habits (Mayes, et al., 2012, pp. 281). Children with autism typically have very specific fixations that don’t change, and play is very structured and repetitive. They might line up toys or put them into a certain order, and then do it again… and again… and again. Any disruption to this routine brings about great distress. Is this description bringing back fond childhood memories? If this sounds like you, then you’re more likely to have autism than ADHD. However, if you had a variety of interests and played in an open-ended way, then you’re more likely to have ADHD than autism.
3) Sensory hypersensitivity
Do you love or loathe crowded places? Another key difference between autism and ADHD is being highly disturbed by sensory overload like lights, noises and smells (Mayes, et al., 2012, pp. 281). This can commonly manifest in ways like avoiding crowded places, being bothered by small sounds that others don’t notice, being unable to hear your name among background noise, being labelled a picky eater or having sleep difficulties. If you feel that the sensory stimulation of this world is too busy and chaotic for you, then you’re more likely to have autism than ADHD. However, if you feel like you can tolerate anything the world can throw at you, then you’re more likely to have ADHD than autism.
4) Fascination with repetitive movements
What sort of things do you find fascinating to look at? An autistic trait that isn’t found in ADHD is a fascination with repetitive movements (Mayes, et al., 2012, pp. 283). This can include endlessly watching things like ceiling fans, spinning wheels or television credits. Although children with ADHD have issues paying attention to anything, children with autism can exercise selective attention or hyperfocus on certain fascinating things. If you are entranced by repetitive movements, then you’re more likely to have autism than ADHD. However, if you never found anything you could focus on for a long amount of time, then you’re more likely to have ADHD than autism.
5) Atypical language development
Have you ever been told that your language ability was far behind your age or far ahead of your age when you were younger? Language development in young autistic children can be surprisingly different from the learning pathways of children with ADHD (Mayes, et al., 283). One possibility is language regression, where a toddler learns how to speak on schedule but then suddenly experiences learning delays or loses the ability altogether. Another possibility is special abilities, where a toddler can speak, read or write well ahead of schedule, or even memorize entire books and movie scripts without effort. If your language development sounds something like this, then you’re more likely to have autism than ADHD. However, if you learned to speak, read and write at typical age levels, then you’re more likely to have ADHD than autism.
Do you relate to any of these traits mentioned in this article? Hopefully, we’ve helped to clear up the main differences between autism and ADHD, but please reach out to a professional if you have any further doubts. Don’t forget to comment, like and share this article if it has helped you.
Mayes, S. D., Calhoun, S. L., Mayes, R. D., & Molitoris, S. (2012). Autism and ADHD: Overlapping and discriminating symptoms. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 277-285.
Taurines, R., Schwenck, C., Westerwald, E., Sachse, M., Siniatchkin, M., & Freitag, C. (2012). ADHD and autism: differential diagnosis or overlapping traits? A selective review. ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, 4(3), 115-139.
Zhou, X., Reynolds, C., Zhu, J., & Kamphaus, R. W. (2020). Differentiating autism from ADHD in children and adolescents using BASC-3. Journal of Pediatric Neuropsychology, 6, 61-65.