Woman struggling with ADHD while in a university classroom setting

ADHD vs. Autism

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) vs. autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? The question comes up when you notice your child struggling to pay attention to the teacher in school or your colleague at work fighting to stay focused on the project at hand. You know something’s not quite right, but what’s really wrong?

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that in the seven years leading to 2019, ADHD affected one in 11 children in the US, making it one of the most common disorders among those 3-17 years old. In 2020, the CDC estimated that ASD occurs in one of 36 eight-year-old children.

Let’s take a closer look at ADHD vs. autism, the relationship between the two, and the symptoms to expect in adults with either or both of these disorders. 

Is ADHD a Form of Autism?

You may wonder whether ADHD is a form of autism, but while both disorders present similar symptoms and both are neurodevelopmental conditions, they are separate disorders.

“While autism and ADHD are both neurological conditions, they’re not the same thing. There are, however, many overlapping symptoms between ADHD and autism and it’s not uncommon for people to have a dual diagnosis.” – Autism Parenting Magazine 

Is ADHD Always on the Autism Spectrum?

In the ADHD vs. autism conversation, it’s easy to assume that ADHD may fall on the autism spectrum because of the similarity in symptoms, but it’s not on the spectrum at all. 

The similarities exist because both conditions impact the central nervous system, which affects all of our movements, language abilities, social skills and ability to focus. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperacitivity Disorder (CHADD) says that more than half of those who are diagnosed with ASD also present symptoms of ADHD, and children with ASD often experience ADHD as a coexisting condition. 

Though the two are separate conditions, someone with either or both will likely struggle in interactions with others, communication, and their ability to be appropriately attentive in different settings. 

What Causes ADHD and Autism? (Are they hereditary)

If you or someone you love is wrestling with the challenges of these disorders, you may wonder what causes them?

Researchers say they can’t point to one exact cause for ADHD or autism, but they do have an idea of the factors that increase risk. Those fall into two categories:

  • Genetic factors – Are autism and ADHD hereditary? Researchers agree that certain combinations of genes increase risk, so there are genetic factors. They continue to explore this contributor in hopes of finding answers for more effective prevention and treatment.
  • Environmental factors – Lead exposure, brain injury, alcohol or drug use during pregnancy, and other similar environmental variables can also increase risk. 

Some believe that diet and nutrition also make a difference, and a 2023 study made waves for its claims that the common plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA) links to both autism and ADHD. The research found that kids with ASD and ADHD had difficulty efficiently clearing out BPA they were exposed to, increasing its toxic effects.

Adult ADHD

Experts disagree on whether ADHD truly first presents in someone who’s an adult. Some say adult onset of the disorder is more likely a case of the adult having gone undiagnosed as a child. Others say environmental factors such as an unhealthy diet, lack of sleep, stress, and exposure to toxins contribute to noticeable changes that lead to adult diagnoses. 

Whether or not specialists missed a diagnosis in childhood, the fact remains that adults live with the challenges of ADHD. In fact, the latest data from the National Institute of Mental Health noted that 4.4% of US adults have the disorder, and BioMed Central found that 2.5% of adults worldwide wrestle with it.

ADHD Symptoms in Adults

What are the symptoms of ADHD in adults? The Cleveland Clinic highlights signs of inattentiveness and hyperactivity:

Among others, the symptoms of inattention include:

  • Difficulty listening
  • Disorganization
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty paying attention to details

Some of the signs of hyperactivity are:

  • Excessive talking
  • Inability to sit still
  • Chronic restlessness
  • Consistent need to fidget
  • Significant impatience with waiting in lines

Adult Autism

How common is autism? We’ve already mentioned that in 2020, the CDC estimated one in 36 eight-year-old children had the disorder. And like with ADHD, most cases of autism are diagnosed in children rather than adults. But there are times when adults receive the diagnosis.

“Autistic people may find some aspects of communication and social interaction challenging. They may have difficulty relating to people and understanding their emotions. Autistic adults may also have inflexible thought patterns and behavior, and may carry out repetitive actions.” Medical News Today

Autism Symptoms in Adults

The Autism Research Institute describes the signs of autism you may see in adults.

  • Difficulties with communication
    • Challenges articulating their own thoughts
    • Difficulty maintaining conversations
    • Trouble with staying on topic 
    • Problems using appropriate language for social settings
  • Repetition of behaviors
    • Tapping their feet or rubbing the side of their leg repeatedly
    • Keeping the same schedule and activities day in and day out 
    • Going to the same places over and over
  • Limited executive function 
    • Challenges with effective planning
    • Inability to see the big picture
    • Difficulty setting and achieving long-term goals

Autism and ADHD can be challenging for adults. What’s more, these disorders often don’t come alone. Those with autism often experience symptoms of ADHD, and both conditions bring increased risk for anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Treatments for Autism and ADHD

Can someone live a normal life with ADHD and autism? The challenges these disorders create for children and adults alike can be difficult to navigate, but there is hope. With a plan for outpatient therapy that includes a comprehensive evaluation and assessment, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy plus medication management and education, those living with these conditions can experience an increased quality of life. Medication is also an option. 

In addition, autism treatment may also involve nutritional guidance, speech language therapy, social skills training, and more. For the best results, early intervention is crucial for children facing challenges related to autism and ADHD.

If you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of autism and ADHD, or if you need help determining the differences between ADHD vs. autism, reach out to our professionals at Best Day. We’re here to help you live your best life.