When my son was first struggling to maintain self-control and socialize with his peers appropriately because of his behaviors, he was diagnosed with ADHD. While his symptoms somewhat indicated he might have ADHD, he was later diagnosed with autism and ADHD. Some might ask,”What’s the difference?” It turns out, these two diagnoses are often comorbid, meaning they exist together, but they are very different! Here’s why.
Autism vs. ADHD
At first glance, autism and ADHD might seem very similar. In both cases, behavior gets in the way of peer socialization. But, autism is a very specialized diagnosis and so is ADHD.
What is Autism?
According to Easter Seals, the following screening questions might lead to a diagnosis of autism:
Does your child…
Not speak as well as his or her peers?
Have poor eye contact?
Not respond selectively to his or her name?
Act as if he or she is in his or her own world?
Seem to “tune others out?”
Not have a social smile?
Seem unable to tell you what he or she wants, preferring to lead you by the hand or get desired objects on his or her own, even at risk of danger?
Have difficulty following simple commands?
Not bring things to you simply to “show” you?
Not point to interesting objects to direct your attention to objects or events of interest?
Have unusually long and severe temper tantrums?
Have repetitive, odd, or stereotypic behaviors?
Show an unusual attachment to inanimate objects, especially hard ones (e.g., flashlight or a chain vs. teddy bear or blanket)?
Prefer to play alone?
Demonstrate an inability to play with toys in the typical way?
Not engage in pretend play (if older than 2 years)?
These are all typical signs of autism, and they are specific to the developmental disorder. While some children with ADHD might have some of these symptoms (tuning others out, having temper tantrums, trouble socializing), most of these characteristics are only seen in children with autism.
What is ADHD?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of ADHD include inattentiveness (inability to focus), hyperactivity (excessive movement), and impulsivity (acting without thinking). There are three types of ADHD:
- Inattentive Type, characterized by the following symptoms:
- Lack of attention to detail
- Difficulties staying focused
- Seems to tune out when being spoken to
- Has trouble finishing tasks
- Difficulties organizing tasks and maintaining deadlines
- Avoids tasks that require sustained focus
- Loses things often
- Is easily distracted.
- Forgets to do daily tasks
- Hyperactive/Impulsive Type, characterized by the following symptoms:
- Squirms in seat and taps hands or feet
- Difficulties staying seated
- Runs or climbs during inappropriate times
- Plays or does leisure activities loudly
- Always “on the go,” as if driven by a motor.
- Talks excessively
- Blurts out answers to unfinished questions
- Difficulties waiting for his/her turn
- Interrupts others or intrudes on the activities of others without asking
- Combined Type, which is characterized by a combination of both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive type ADHD.
Autism and ADHD Combined
A child with both autism and ADHD might exhibit a combination of the symptoms of autism and the symptoms of ADHD, but one should be careful when diagnosing a child with both disorders. As I found out with my son, although he does have both ADHD and autism, stimulant medications are not good for him and cause him to have rage episodes due to an increased level of dopamine in the brain. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have both because he is very impulsive and hyperactive in addition to having communication and social delays.
While I choose to use medication to help moderate the symptoms of both disorders, you may choose not to. Here is a great article about treating ADHD without medication. Whichever disorder your child has, both are highly manageable with early intervention and well-managed routines. I wish you the best on your journey!