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How to Distinguish Between ADHD and Autism

Two Methods:Understanding the DisabilitiesMoving ForwardCommunity Q&A

Getting an accurate diagnosis for a developmental disability can be a difficult task. You may struggle with discerning between symptoms, or cases in which two disabilities share many symptoms. Whether you need a diagnosis for yourself or for your loved one, here is how to get a general sense of whether it's autism or ADHD.

Method 1
Understanding the Disabilities

  1. 1
    Recognize the similarities between ADHD and autism. There's quite a bit of overlap between the disabilities, and it is easy to mistake them for each other. Both ADHD and autism can involve:[1][2][3]
    • Stimming/fidgeting
    • Difficulty focusing
    • Difficulty initiating tasks
    • Creativity
    • Strong emotions; struggling with self control
    • Poor balance/coordination
    • Avoidance of eye contact
    • Social difficulties
    • Higher chance of anxiety/depression and sensory issues
  2. 2
    Carefully analyze how the person pays attention. Both autistics and people with ADHD may go into hyperfocus (enhanced focus) for long periods of time, especially if the subject interests them. However, people with ADHD usually have more trouble focusing in general.
    • People with ADHD usually struggle to focus when they are disinterested, because their minds wander easily. Multitasking can help them focus.
    • Autistic people may struggle to focus if they cannot block out sensory distractions (such as loud noises, flickering lights). In a sensory-friendly environment, their focus is closer to average. They may, however perseverate more--that is, not be able to move from something easily.[4]
    • Video games will typically be an activity in which both individuals with ADHD and autism will hyperfocus. Therefore, look for other interests as a guide.
  3. 3
    Look for developmental delays. Autistic people have significant developmental delays in several areas (self care, communication, etc.), while people with ADHD do not. [5] Consider how self-sufficient the person is compared to their peers. For example, if your preteen daughter struggles to wash her hair or make her lunch while her peers can, she might be autistic.
    • Autistic people may seem like "late bloomers" in some areas, even if they excel in others. Some may fear growing up and being expected to be more independent; keeping up with their peers is already hard.
  4. 4
    Consider communication skills. While both people with ADHD and autistic people have trouble communicating, it is usually more pronounced in autistic people. Communication troubles and idiosyncracies may include:
    • Difficulty discerning nonverbal communication (body language, facial expressions, sarcasm, subtle hints, tone of voice)
    • Unusual voice (pitch, monotone/singsong, etc.)
    • Trouble expressing one's thoughts and feelings
    • Difficulty figuring out what others are thinking and feeling, or in more extreme cases, not understanding that others have different thoughts/knowledge/feelings
    • Being nonverbal, or having nonverbal episodes, especially under stress
  5. 5
    Look for enjoyment of sameness. Most autistic people thrive in routines, not only because it makes sure that things get done, but because it feels comforting and safe. Autistic people may become upset when a routine is changed. People with ADHD may benefit from them, but do not necessarily enjoy them, and may need help adhering to a routine.[6]
    • Consistency is common in autism. For example, they may order the same food every time they visit a specific restaurant, because they know they like it. A change, such as a favored menu item no longer being available, may be deeply distressing.
  6. 6
    Consider auditory processing. Autistic people may be slow to process spoken words, and struggle to remember them. Auditory processing issues can look like this:
    • A delay to understand words (e.g. not processing "Your book is going to fall!" until it has already fallen)
    • Wanting subtitles to understand movies/TV
    • Difficulty understanding faraway speakers (e.g. in an auditorium), more than close ones

Method 2
Moving Forward

  1. 1
    Read what autistic people and people with ADHD have to say. They can bring in a more human aspect to the diagnostic labels, and it may be easier to relate to "I struggle to remember to shower, eat, and go to bed" than "Executive Dysfunction." This can give you a sense of the range of how disability affects people, and what disability looks like in real life.
  2. 2
    Take time to think back on the past. Remember your or your loved one's quirks, defining moments, and remarks from teachers. Do any of these start to make sense when viewed through the lens of ADHD or autism?
    • Your ability to get a good diagnosis will partially depend on your ability to produce anecdotes describing certain symptoms. Reflecting and being prepared will increase your chances of an accurate diagnosis.
  3. 3
    Consider the possibility of both conditions. If most of the symptoms of ADHD and autism fit you or your loved one, keep in mind that it is possible to have both.[7][8]
    • One study suggests that around half of autistic people have been diagnosed with ADHD as well.[9]
    • Both autistic people and people with ADHD have similar genetic quirks.[10]
  4. 4
    Avoid negativity about disability diagnoses. It is possible to be autistic, have ADHD, and be happy at the same time. A disability may present challenges, but it will be okay. Don't let doom-and-gloom predictions frighten you. They're almost always wrong, even when they come from a specialist's mouth. Disability won't stop a happy future.
    • If your child receives a diagnosis, remember that they can hear you (even if it looks like they aren't paying attention). Vent your frustrations or fears when they are out of earshot. Children shouldn't be worrying about adult problems, especially if they might think that it's their fault.
    • Be skeptical about fearmongering rhetoric, such as Autism Speaks ads. These may make it sound like disability will ruin your life. This is not true. Scary words are effective at fundraising, but that does not make them real.
  5. 5
    Be very cautious about drawing conclusions without a doctor's advice. ADHD and autism are complex disabilities, that can't be understood after a few minutes (or even a few hours) of research.
    • The Autistic community is usually open to people who have self-diagnosed after lots of research, because diagnosis can be incredibly expensive and inaccessible. You will be welcome in the community, but you can't get therapy or accommodations without a doctor's note.
  6. 6
    Get a referral to a developmental disability specialist. Many specialists see autistic patients and patients with ADHD, and know a lot about both conditions. You can get a referral from your general practitioner, or from your insurance company.
  7. 7
    Bring up concerns about misdiagnosis, if needed. If you worry that you or your loved one doesn't have an accurate diagnosis, talk to your doctor or disability specialist. You can also get a second opinion. Doctors know a lot, but they are still human, and can make mistakes.
  8. 8
    Remember that only trained medical professionals can officially diagnose autism spectrum disorders or ADHD. Many people can help screen for issues, including teachers, physicians, babysitters, and even yourself, but none of these people can make an official diagnosis. This is important, as there can be other issues besides autism or ADHD can share some of the same characteristics. If you suspect these issues, there needs to be a medical professional involved.

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  • It is possible for a person to have both autism and ADHD, but having a sense of how these issues are different can help guide you in your diagnosing process.

Article Info

Categories: Autism Diagnosis Process | Attention and Developmental Disorders

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