When a school-aged child can’t focus on tasks or in school, parents may think their child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Difficulty concentrating on homework? Fidgeting and difficulty sitting still? An inability to make or maintain eye contact?
All of these are symptoms of ADHD.
These symptoms do match what most people understand about the common neurodevelopmental disorder. Even many doctors might gravitate toward that diagnosis. Yet, ADHD might not be the only answer.
Before an ADHD diagnosis is made, it’s worth understanding how ADHD and autism can be confused, and understand when they overlap.
ADHD versus autism
ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder often found in children. Approximately 9.4 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD.
There are three types of ADHD:
- predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
- predominantly inattentive
The combined type of ADHD, where you experience both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, is the most common.
The average age of diagnosis is 7 years old and boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls, although this may be because it presents differently.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), another childhood condition, also affects an increasing number of children.
ASD is a group of complex disorders. These disorders affect behavior, development, and communication. About 1 in 68 U.S. children has been diagnosed with ASD. Boys are four-and-a-half times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
Symptoms of ADHD and autism
In the earliest stages, it’s not unusual for ADHD and ASD to be mistaken for the other. Children with either condition may experience trouble communicating and focusing. Although they have some similarities, they’re still two distinct conditions.
Here’s a comparison of the two conditions and their symptoms:
|ADHD symptoms||Autism symptoms|
|being easily distracted||✓|
|frequently jumping from one task to another or quickly growing bored with tasks||✓|
|unresponsive to common stimuli||✓|
|difficulty focusing, or concentrating and narrowing attention to one task||✓|
|intense focus and concentration on a singular item||✓|
|talking nonstop or blurting things out||✓|
|trouble sitting still||✓|
|interrupting conversations or activities||✓|
|lack of concern or inability to react to other people’s emotions or feelings||✓||✓|
|repetitive movement, such as rocking or twisting||✓|
|avoiding eye contact||✓|
|impaired social interaction||✓|
|delayed developmental milestones||✓|
When they occur together
There may be a reason why symptoms of ADHD and ASD can be difficult to distinguish from one another. Both can occur at the same time.
Not every child can be clearly diagnosed. A doctor may decide only one of the disorders is responsible for your child’s symptoms. In other cases, children may have both conditions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14 percent of children with ADHD also have ASD. In one study from 2013, children with both conditions had more debilitating symptoms than children who didn’t exhibit ASD traits. In other words, children with ADHD and ASD symptoms were more likely to have learning difficulties and impaired social skills than children who only had one of the conditions.