ADHD Vs Autism [2024]: What's The Difference, Common Symptoms, Causes &Treatments

Jun 28, 202410 min
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Manasvi Dodiya
Scientific Writer | Microbiologist
adhd vs autism

You find a child unable to sit still in a classroom while the other children are deeply focused on an activity. Instead of listening quietly, he rocked his body from right to left repeatedly. You observe that he is also intervening in the conversation without realizing that he is doing so. After some time, you notice that he fidgets with his toy even though he was asked to sit quietly. He was also struggling to maintain conversation with other children when asked to collaborate in school activities. 

Which disorder fits best for these symptoms? 

We assume it might be ADHD. 

But what if we say that the constant swaying, inattention, and restlessness are in fact the symptoms of Autism?

Both ADHD and Autism are very distinct disorders that develop at an early age. While these disorders manifest differently in children, the phenotypic traits of the disorders might appear similar. It is important to know the difference between them. 

In this article, we will understand the difference between ADHD and Autism and how it affects the lives of children and adults.

Understanding ADHD and Autism

What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is primarily observed in children although even adults are diagnosed with ADHD.  According to a report released by Forbes Health, 129 million children between the age of 5-19 are diagnosed with ADHD worldwide. 

ADHD results in individuals to be hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive. For example, if a child has ADHD, he might constantly fidget with things in class, get restless, talk excessively, interrupt conversations, unable to sit still in quiet surroundings. 

There are three types of ADHD:

  1. Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
  2. Predominantly inattentive
  3. Combined 

ADHD is also diagnosed in adults. However, the symptoms may vary.  An adult having ADHD might have hyperfocus or many emotional concerns. 

Symptoms Of ADHD In Adults: 

Adults suffering from ADHD have very peculiar symptoms. They may experience a lack of focus, relationship concerns, disorganization, restlessness and anxiety, emotional concerns, time management concerns, negative self-image, forgetfulness, impulsivity, etc. 

ADHD can affect the lives of people more severely in adulthood than in childhood. 

What Is Autism?       

Autism or autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact and hinders their learning, communication, and behavior. People with Autism often have delayed movement skills and have trouble maintaining eye contact with people. They sometimes feel compelled to follow certain routines perfectly.

Although it can be diagnosed at any age, the symptoms generally appear in the first 2 years of life since autism is a developmental disorder. These developmental delays or deficits are caused by some differences in the brain. 

The autism spectrum disorder consists of five major disorders. Each disorder presents a unique type of challenge and it is important to understand the symptoms presented by each disorder the five major types of Autism that fall under the Autism spectrum disorder are Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Kanner’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder. 

If you know somebody with autism, you might have observed some behavior that stands out. They might have delayed language and learning skills, and unusual eating and sleeping habits. 

Autism is different for everyone and hence the severity is different for everybody. 

ADHD is distinct from Autism but people often think that they are related because the primary symptoms of ADHD - hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention - are frequently found in children with Autism. Attention deficits are common factors that might lead people to link them. Both disorders might also appear to be similar since both fall under the umbrella of disorders with neurological defects.  In addition, the treatment approach adopted by the professionals might also be similar. 

The Difference: Knowing The Symptoms Of ADHD And Autism:

ADHD Symptoms 

Autism Symptoms

  1. Failing to pay attention to details

  2. Having trouble staying focused on a task

  3. Having trouble following instructions

  4. Fail to complete chores 

  5. Having trouble organizing tasks

  6. Blurt out words, interrupt talks

  7. Fidget with or tap hands and feet

  8. Cannot perform an activity quietly

  1. Delayed language skills 

  1. Delayed movement skills

  1. Lack of fear or more fear than expected

  1. Repeats words or phrases over and over

  1. Avoids or does not keep eye contact

  1. Gets upset over minor changes

  1. Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins in a circle

  2. Must follow certain routines

  3. Gets upset by minor changes

  4. Has unusual reactions to the way things sound, taste, or smell. 

 What Are The Overlapping Symptoms Of ADHD And Autism?

Telling apart the symptoms of Autism and ADHD can sometimes be tricky. The presence of similar patterns and behaviours can lead to confusion. A genetic link is also suspected to be the source of these overlapping symptoms. 

The following traits overlap in both conditions:

  1. Inattention and hyperactive behavior: While inattention and hyperactivity is characteristic of people with ADHD, these behaviours are also observed in people with Autism. 
  2. Sensitivity differences: One distinguishing trait in people with ADHD and autism is the sensitivity to touch, smell, light, textures, etc. 
  3. Social behaviour: Often, people with ADHD and autism find it difficult to follow the protocols in social settings. For example, people with ADHD and autism have difficulty staying still and might interrupt conversations. 

What Causes ADHD And Autism? 

Research shows that environmental, genetic, and neurological factors can lead to the development of ADHD and Autism. The source of the disorders can be different for every individual but some causes have been repeatedly observed in people. 

Causes Of ADHD:

  1. Dopamine deficiency: From the neurological point of view, research has shown that people with ADHD have a reduction in the dopamine receptors in the brain. They are responsible for movement and emotional responses in our body and can be a possible contributor to the disorder. 
  2. Altered brain structure: Many people blame children or adults with ADHD for having a bad attitude. The reality of course is quite different. Research shows that brain regions involved in attention, impulse control, and stimulus integration abilities, have yet to become fully active in people with ADHD. 
  3. Genetic history: At a deeper level, genes play a role in laying the foundation for this disorder. It might run in the family. Research shows that either of the parents of ADHD children had an antisocial personality or alcoholism. 20-30% of the siblings of ADHD children also have ADHD. 

Apart from three prevalent causes, having a brain injury, consuming alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy, premature delivery and nutritional deficiency might also cause ADHD. 

Causes Of Autism:

The following factors increase the risk of autism and determine the type of autism the child might develop. 

  1. Heredity: Research suggests that a family history of autism contributes to it development in an individual.  The evidence also suggests that abnormal chromosomes contribute to the development of the disorder. 
  2. Environmental influences: Influences like events before and during childbirth can contribute to the development of the disorder. It can be:

a. Advanced parental age 

b.Maternal obesity or diabetes

c.Maternal immune system disorder

d.Low birth weight

f.Premature delivery

3. Exposure to toxins or pesticides:

Exposure to heavy metals like mercury, lead, or arsenic can lead to the development of autism. These heavy metals interrupt the cell signaling processes leading to neurological defects. 

Other possible causes of Autism might be Fragile X syndrome, Rett Syndrome, pollution, and oxygen deprivation during birth. These causes will vary for almost all children. The intensity with which the cause has affected a child will determine the type of autism the child will develop. 

How To Get Diagnosed? Recognising If It Is ADHD Or Autism

ADHD diagnosis:

There are tests designed to assess if a person has ADHD. These tests act like diagnostic tools to estimate the severity of the disorder. The ASRS (Adult ADHD Self-Report Test) is used for checking ADHD. This test consists of 18 items to reflect upon which then identifies the extent of the effect. 

Autism diagnosis:

Several diagnostic tools are currently used for formal diagnosis. They are:

  1. Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS™-2)
  2. Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI)
  3. Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers (STAT)
  4. Childhood Autism Rating Scales (CARS)
  5. Tele-ASD-Peds - diagnosis for use in telehealth

A detailed medical evaluation can be done by a psychologist, neurodevelopmental physician, and other specialized physicians like developmental-behavioural paediatricians, child neurologists, and geneticists. The diagnosis of Autism is usually made by abiding by the criteria set in the Diagnostic and Statistical manual-5 (DSM-5). (12

Can Autism Be Misdiagnosed As ADHD?

Attention deficiency, hyperactivity, trouble interacting with people - all of these symptoms are alike for both ADHD and Autism. It is easy to mistake Autism for ADHD because of the phenotypic nature of both disorders. It requires special attention and correct diagnosis between the two. 

It is advisable to consult a psychologist or a child psychiatrist who can offer a definite diagnosis.

Treatments For ADHD And Autism:

Treatments For ADHD:

ADHD treatments comprise practices that can help an individual manage their symptoms. Many times, these symptoms can be strenuous for the parents as well (if the child suffers from ADHD). In such situations, people suffering from ADHD can go through these treatments:

1. Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has successfully helped people with ADHD enhance their focus and become less depressed and anxious. (13)  It strengthens the ability to control attention and teaches one to focus on things effectively. 

2. Parental training and other family-based interventions:

Behavioral parental training is recommended as a first-line psychological intervention for ADHD. Parents are taught consequence-based techniques that reinforce desired behavior. There are several kinds of parental training like Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), Parent Management Training (PMT), Positive Parenting Programs (Triple P).

  1. Behavioural interventions:

Behavioral interventions like constructing a reward system or carefully scheduling breaks to train people can help improve symptoms of ADHD. Attention training, relief therapy and game therapy are some of the most commonly used interventions. 

4. Balanced diets:

A balanced diet is not a treatment but rather an aid that can be used along with other treatments. Foods containing Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty acids have been known to improve the symptoms of ADHD. This is because they play a role in strengthening brain signals.  Apart from these fatty acids, having a balanced diet that is rich in proteins and complex carbohydrates also benefits people suffering from ADHD.

Do read Therapy for ADHD

Treatments For Autism:

There are many ways to minimize the symptoms and maximize the abilities of a child or adult with autism. These include:

A. Therapies:

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy
  2. Speech-language therapy
  3. Educational and school-based therapies
  4. Occupational therapy

B. Medications:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a family of antidepressants that can effectively reduce the frequency and intensity of repetitive behaviours; decrease anxiety, irritability, and aggressive behaviour; and improve eye contact. Stimulants are often used to decrease hyperactivity in people with Autism.  

Tricyclics, anti-anxiety medications, anticonvulsants, SNRIs (Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), and psychoactive medications are also actively used to manage the symptoms.

Use Of Transcranial Direct Stimulation (tDCS) For Treating ADHD And Autism:

tDCS (Transcranial direct current stimulation) is a form of brain stimulation technique that can activate specific cortical areas of the brain. tDCS applies mild current (1-2mA) to the brain which can stimulate brain activity and treat the symptoms of cognitive disabilities. 

This stimulation can help manage the symptoms of ADHD and Autism invariably. Studies have revealed that applying tDCS to the affected areas of the brain showed improvement in the social, health, and behavioral problem domains of Autism. 

It has also shown promising results in reducing the symptoms of co-morbid disorders. This non-invasive brain stimulation technology is slowly gaining popularity as an intervention to treat many disorders. 

Mave Health’s ARC-tDCS provides a holistic healing experience for treating ADHD and Autism. It can be combined with personalized therapy and medication (if needed). The best part about using the ARC-tDCS is that the symptoms are managed without any risk of side effects. 

Can You Have Both ADHD And Autism?

Yes, Autism and ADHD can occur together. According to the research conducted to date, almost 50-70% of individuals with Autism also present with comorbid ADHD. In fact, ADHD occurs more with any autism than any other disorder. The chances of the co-occurrence of these disorders are almost 30-80%. 

The appearance of both disorders together can usually lead to impaired social skills and difficulty in learning. The occurrence can also lead to below-threshold cross-disorder symptoms. This means that a patient might experience symptoms of another disorder, even if they do not have an official diagnosis for it yet. 

How Do You Get Treated For Both ADHD & Autism At The Same Time?

A comprehensive assessment and carefully crafted treatment plan can be used to treat ADHD and Autism at the same time. Cognitive behavioural therapy and pharmacological interventions can be used together for certain autism symptoms that overlap with ADHD. 

The treatment can be designed for  4-week, and 8-week plans, depending upon the extent of the symptoms. Research reveals that reduction in ADHD symptoms has been the primary outcome measure for most medications for co-occurring ADHD and Autism. 

Psychological interventions can also work best to treat both conditions together. Interventions like parental training and social skills training are important for treating the social impairments that might be an outcome of either of the disorders. 

The similarity of symptoms might make it easier to target them. For example, risperidone and aripiprazole are used to control irritability and lack of focus. The medication can target such symptoms and reduce their impact. 

Brain stimulation strategies like transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can also be opted for. Since the amygdala (a processing centre for emotions)  is known to be affected by both ADHD and Autism, tDCS can enhance functioning without the fear of any side effects. 

Can ADHD Cause Autism And Vice Versa?

No, currently no evidence suggests that either of the disorders causes the other one. Although ADHD is present as a comorbidity in many autistic people, it does not cause Autism. 


 Advancement in technology and research provides hope for the treatment and management of autism and ADHD. With the right tools and therapies, one can have an improved quality of life with living with a diagnosis of ADHD or autism.

If you suspect that you or your child are experiencing symptoms of ADHD or autism, it is advisable to seek help from a professional. They can help you devise a step-by-step treatment plan and ensure that you or your child are taken care of. The ARC-tDCS technology by Mave Health can aid in managing symptoms that have been troubling you or your child for so long. 


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Manasvi Dodiya
Scientific Writer | Microbiologist
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