ADHD vs. autism: Differences and symptoms to monitor

March 7, 2022

Many parents who have concerns about their child's developmental delays want to understand the difference between ADHD versus Autism. While ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and autism (ASD) are both neurodevelopmental disorders, they are different in several ways. 

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a disorder that makes it challenging for a child to concentrate, pay attention, or sit still. 

In contrast, autism refers to a spectrum of conditions where a child faces difficulty with communication, social skills, rational thinking, and repetitive behaviors.

How do ADHD and autism differ?

There are a few differences in how children with autism and ADHD behave socially. The largest difference lies within their concentration span. A child with autism may find it challenging to focus on an activity that does not interest them. However, if they find something fascinating, it can captivate them for hours on end. On the other hand, the length of time a child with ADHD can concentrate is likely to be low, even when they are doing something they adore. 

Children with either ADHD or autism might also find it challenging to interact with others, but in different ways:

  • Children with autism might find it difficult to voice their feelings and they may not use the standard signals of conversation like eye contact or gestures.
  • Children with ADHD, on the contrary, may speak non-stop, interrupt others, or not detect how their expressions affect others.

Children with ADHD and autism might also react in different ways when it comes to routines:

  • Children with autism might feel safer when a familiar routine drives their day. In addition, they might become resentful or worried if something, such as reading a favorite book before bedtime, gets changed.
  • Usually, a child with ADHD does not like any set routine. They are more likely to get bored, leading to impulsive behavior in disciplined environments like school.

Understanding ADHD signs in children 

A child with ADHD may show various signs such as: daydreaming constantly, talking too much, acting impulsively, taking excessive risks, or making silly mistakes. Some of the signs of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are as follows: 

  • A child might appear to be absent minded or easily distracted.
  • A child may have difficulty listening and following directions.
  • A child may be prone to meltdowns and tantrums due to frustration or lack of impulse management.
  • A child may struggle with completing tasks or organizing things.
  • A child may have problems staying on a task unless an activity is excessively appealing to them.
  • A child may struggle with social skills.
  • A child may struggle to sit still during quiet activities, such as lunchtime or during self-dependent work time at school.
  • A child might have trouble waiting for his turn and staying patient.
  • A child may need to be continually moving, fidgeting, or playing with every item around him or her.
  • A child may constantly interrupt other individuals, yell things out inappropriately, and stumble with nonverbal signals.
  • A child may work without thinking and may not know the results of his or her actions.
  • A child might overreact to sensory intake, like the way things smell, sound, taste, look or feel.
  • A child may play recklessly and take excessive physical dangers.

Understanding autism signs in children

The symptoms of autism in children usually start in early childhood and continue throughout their entire life. Some of the symptoms of Autism in children are as follows: 

  • A child avoids eye contact or physical contact.
  • A child has delayed speech development (or is completely nonverbal) or repeats words over and over.
  • A child is prone to breakdowns due to sensory processing problems, stress, frustration, or interaction difficulties.
  • A child reacts negatively to changes in routines.
  • A child demonstrates social skill deficits.
  • A child uses excessive body movement to self-soothe (e.g., rocking, fluttering hands).
  • A child obsesses over items or topics. 
  • A child remains advanced verbally but has difficulty with nonverbal signals.
  • A child has a problem showing understanding of other people’s emotions and his/her own.
  • A child reacts strongly to the way things smell, sound, taste, look or feel (sensory processing problems).
  • A child has trouble with safety and risk understanding.

Possible social and emotional impact of ADHD and autism

Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) usually have problems following social rules which can make it challenging to create and maintain friendships. Recurring negative feedback for not paying attention or acting out can affect their self-esteem, making the child feel that he or she is “bad”.  

On the contrary, the principal struggles of children with autism involve social learning, interaction, and repetitive habits or behavior. Numerous children with ASD have problems making friends, relating to other individuals, and interpreting social signals.

Determining ADHD and autism for timely care and therapy

The first step to identify whether a child has ADHD or autism is to consult a therapist who is familiar with these conditions. For ADHD diagnosis, therapists seek a detailed pattern of conduct over time. These patterns could include being forgetful, distracted, fidgeting, having problems waiting for their turn, and more. 

At this step, the expert will also speak to the parents and teachers to get feedback regarding the conduct of the child and try to eliminate other potential causes of the symptoms. In addition, for an autism diagnosis, the therapist will begin with a questionnaire, ask questions to the caregiver or family, and observe the child's behavior. 

Children on the autism spectrum usually begin developing symptoms when they are young. If the therapist decides that further testing is essential, they will use other methods or assessments to diagnose the child. 

Furthermore, families and caregivers may have a challenging time differentiating between ADHD and autism diagnoses because both conditions can happen at the same time. According to a report by CDC, 14% of children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) also have autism.

Once you get an accurate diagnosis from therapists, you can get proper therapy for your child. If both conditions overlap in your child, it may be hard to find a therapist who knows a wide variety of treatments. However, managing the signs of one of the conditions can help the other. In general, behavioral and occupational therapy are the two most impactful forms of therapy for ADHD and autism. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for therapists to use for ADHD and autism therapy. Therapists will individualize treatment programs to fit the needs of the child.

Conclusion

At a high level, both ADHD and autism are lifelong challenges. However, parents can help children manage them through early intervention by consulting a therapist while the child is still young. At Songbird, our best-in-class therapists can help your child succeed and grow through high-quality at-home autism care.

Songbird therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

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