What is the difference between ADHD and autism?

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are two distinct neurodevelopmental conditions that affect individuals in unique ways. ADHD is characterised by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, whereas autism is defined by difficulties in social communication and interaction, along with restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. 

Despite these differences, there can be overlaps in symptoms, making it challenging to distinguish between the two. If you live in Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties, consider contacting us for ADHD assessment, Oxford

Understanding the differences between ADHD and autism is crucial for several reasons. Proper diagnosis is the first step towards effective treatment and management, which can significantly improve the quality of life for those affected. Misdiagnosis or overlooking the presence of both conditions can lead to inadequate support and interventions. 

By exploring the distinctions and commonalities between ADHD and autism, we can foster a better understanding and appreciation of these conditions, ultimately leading to more informed and compassionate care. If you wish to learn more about the concept of high functioning autism and how that presents, take a look at our article High functioning ADHD test

Understanding ADHD and Autism

What is ADHD?

Definition and Core Symptoms

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that significantly impacts an individual’s ability to focus, control impulses, and regulate their activity levels. ADHD is most commonly diagnosed in childhood, but its effects can persist into adulthood, influencing various facets of daily life, including academic achievement, professional performance, and personal relationships. The primary symptoms of ADHD fall into three categories: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. 

Inattention can be characterised by difficulty sustaining focus, frequent careless mistakes, struggles with organisation, and a tendency to be easily distracted. Hyperactivity can manifest as excessive fidgeting, an inability to remain seated, and a persistent feeling of being ‘on the go.’ Impulsivity may involve interrupting others, difficulty waiting for one’s turn, and making hasty decisions without considering the consequences.

Types of ADHD

ADHD is typically classified into three types based on the predominant symptoms. The Predominantly Inattentive Presentation is where individuals mainly exhibit symptoms of inattention. The Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation is characterised by symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Finally, the Combined Presentation is where individuals display a combination of inattention and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms. Understanding these types is crucial for accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plans.

What is Autism?

Definition and Core Characteristics

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complex neurodevelopmental condition defined by difficulties in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities. Autism is typically identified in early childhood, with symptoms that vary widely in their severity and impact on daily life. The core characteristics of autism include social communication difficulties and restricted and repetitive behaviours. 

Social communication challenges involve difficulties in understanding and using verbal and non-verbal communication, forming and maintaining relationships, and a lack of interest in social interactions. Restricted and repetitive behaviours include engaging in repetitive movements or speech, strict adherence to routines, and an intense focus on specific interests or activities.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Explained

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a broad term that encompasses a range of conditions, each presenting unique challenges and strengths. The spectrum nature of autism means that individuals can exhibit a wide variety of symptoms and behaviours, with some requiring significant support in daily living and others leading largely independent lives. Understanding ASD’s broad scope is essential for recognising the diverse experiences of individuals on the autism spectrum and ensuring that they receive the appropriate support and interventions tailored to their specific needs.

Key Differences Between ADHD and Autism

Comparison of Symptoms

While ADHD and autism share some overlapping symptoms, they are distinct conditions with different primary characteristics. ADHD is predominantly characterised by difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Individuals with ADHD often struggle to maintain focus, exhibit restless behaviour, and act impulsively without considering the consequences. These symptoms can lead to challenges in academic and professional settings, as well as in personal relationships.

In contrast, autism is primarily marked by challenges in social communication and interaction, along with restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. Individuals with autism may have difficulty understanding social cues, engaging in typical social interactions, and developing peer relationships. They may also exhibit repetitive behaviours, have a strong preference for routines, and possess intense, specific interests. While both conditions can involve difficulties with attention and social interactions, the nature and underlying reasons for these difficulties differ significantly.

Differences in Diagnosis and Evaluation

The diagnostic processes for ADHD and autism also differ, reflecting the unique characteristics of each condition. ADHD is typically diagnosed based on the presence of persistent inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms that interfere with functioning in multiple settings, such as home, school, or work. Diagnosis often involves comprehensive evaluations, including clinical interviews, behaviour rating scales, and observations from multiple informants like parents, teachers, or employers.

Autism diagnosis, on the other hand, focuses on identifying difficulties in social communication and interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive behaviours. Evaluations for autism often include detailed developmental histories, structured observations, and standardised assessments of social, communication, and behavioural skills. These evaluations may involve a multidisciplinary team, including psychologists, speech therapists, and occupational therapists, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the individual’s strengths and challenges.

Understanding these key differences in symptoms and diagnostic approaches is crucial for accurate identification and appropriate intervention, ensuring that individuals receive the most effective support tailored to their specific needs.

How to Recognise ADHD and Autism in Yourself

Symptoms and Behaviours to Look Out For

Recognising the signs of ADHD and autism in yourself can be the first step towards seeking appropriate support and intervention. For ADHD, key symptoms to look out for include persistent difficulties in maintaining attention, such as frequently losing focus during tasks or conversations, making careless mistakes, and being easily distracted. Hyperactivity symptoms might involve feeling restless, constantly fidgeting, and having difficulty staying seated in situations where it is expected. Impulsivity is another hallmark, manifesting as interrupting others frequently, struggling to wait your turn, and making hasty decisions without thorough consideration.

In the case of autism, you might notice challenges in social communication and interaction. This can include difficulty understanding social cues, finding it hard to initiate or maintain conversations, and preferring solitary activities over social interactions. You might also exhibit restricted and repetitive behaviours, such as adhering strictly to routines, engaging in repetitive movements or speech, and having intense, specific interests. Sensory sensitivities, such as being unusually sensitive to light, sound, or textures, are also common in autism.

Self-Assessment Tips

Self-assessment can be a valuable tool in recognising whether you might have ADHD or autism. Start by reflecting on your daily experiences and behaviours, and consider keeping a journal to track any recurring difficulties or patterns. Online self-assessment questionnaires can provide initial insights, but they should not replace professional evaluation. Tools such as the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS) for ADHD and the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) for autism can help identify symptoms that warrant further exploration.

It’s important to approach self-assessment with an open mind and to seek the perspective of trusted friends or family members who can provide additional insights into your behaviours and interactions. If your self-assessment indicates that you may have symptoms of ADHD or autism, the next step is to seek a professional evaluation. A healthcare provider can conduct comprehensive assessments, provide a formal diagnosis, and discuss appropriate interventions and support options.

Recognising the signs of ADHD and autism in yourself is a crucial step towards understanding and addressing these conditions, leading to improved wellbeing and quality of life.

Co-occurrence of ADHD and Autism

Can You Have Both ADHD and Autism?

Yes, it is possible to have both ADHD and autism. While ADHD and autism are distinct conditions, they can co-occur, meaning an individual can be diagnosed with both. This dual diagnosis can present a unique set of challenges, as the symptoms of each condition can interact and influence one another. For instance, the inattention and impulsivity associated with ADHD can exacerbate the social communication difficulties seen in autism, and vice versa.

How Common is Dual Diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis of ADHD and autism is relatively common. Research indicates that a significant number of individuals with autism also exhibit symptoms of ADHD. Studies suggest that between 30% to 50% of individuals diagnosed with autism also meet the criteria for ADHD [1-3]. Conversely, a smaller but still notable percentage of individuals with ADHD may exhibit traits of autism. This overlap underscores the importance of comprehensive evaluation when diagnosing either condition to ensure that all relevant symptoms are identified and addressed.

Implications of Having Both Conditions

Having both ADHD and autism can have several implications for an individual’s daily life and overall wellbeing. The presence of both conditions can amplify challenges in various areas, such as academic performance, workplace functioning, and social relationships. For example, the impulsivity and hyperactivity of ADHD can make it more difficult for an individual with autism to adhere to routines and manage sensory sensitivities.

From a diagnostic and treatment perspective, it is crucial to consider the presence of both conditions to develop an effective, holistic support plan. Interventions may need to be tailored to address the unique combination of symptoms, incorporating strategies from both ADHD and autism treatment protocols. This might include behavioural therapies, educational support, medication management, and social skills training.

Understanding the co-occurrence of ADHD and autism is essential for providing comprehensive care that addresses the full spectrum of an individual’s needs. Recognising and appropriately managing both conditions can lead to improved outcomes and a higher quality of life for those affected.

Misconceptions and Confusions

ADHD and autism can sometimes be confused due to overlapping symptoms, such as difficulties with attention, impulsivity, and social interactions. Both conditions can manifest in behaviours that might appear similar on the surface, leading to potential misdiagnosis if not carefully evaluated. For instance, a child with ADHD may struggle with social interactions due to impulsivity and inattentiveness, while a child with autism might have social difficulties stemming from challenges in understanding social cues and communication.

However, the underlying reasons for these behaviours differ significantly. ADHD primarily involves difficulties with executive functioning, including maintaining attention, controlling impulses, and regulating activity levels. Autism, on the other hand, encompasses a broader range of social communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive behaviours. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective intervention.

Seeking help and support

When to Seek Professional Advice

Recognising when to seek professional advice is a crucial step in managing ADHD and autism effectively. If you or someone you know exhibits persistent symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, or difficulties with social communication and repetitive behaviours, it is advisable to seek a professional evaluation. Early intervention is key to addressing these conditions and can lead to better outcomes. Consulting with a healthcare professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or developmental paediatrician, can provide clarity and guidance on the next steps.

Resources and Support Networks

Accessing resources and support networks can provide invaluable assistance for individuals with ADHD and autism, as well as their families.

  • Support Groups: Joining support groups, either in-person or online, can offer emotional support, practical advice, and a sense of community. Organisations such as CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and the National Autistic Society provide resources and support networks.
  • Educational Resources: Websites, books, and online courses can offer comprehensive information about ADHD and autism, helping individuals and families better understand these conditions and how to manage them.
  • Professional Organisations: Professional organisations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), provide access to research, treatment guidelines, and directories of specialists.

Seeking help and support is a vital part of managing ADHD and autism. Early diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and access to supportive resources can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals with these conditions and their families.


In summary, ADHD and autism are distinct neurodevelopmental conditions with unique characteristics and challenges. ADHD is characterised by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, while autism involves difficulties in social communication and restricted, repetitive behaviours. Understanding the key differences between these conditions is essential for accurate diagnosis and effective intervention. Both conditions can co-occur, necessitating a comprehensive approach to treatment and support.

Recognising the signs of ADHD and autism in yourself or a loved one is the first step towards seeking appropriate help. Early intervention can significantly improve outcomes, making it crucial to consult with healthcare professionals when symptoms are observed. Treatment options vary and may include medication, behavioural therapy, educational support, and various therapeutic interventions. Additionally, accessing resources and support networks can provide valuable assistance and community for individuals and families affected by these conditions.

If you suspect that you or someone you care about may have ADHD or autism, it is important to seek professional guidance. A thorough evaluation by a qualified healthcare provider can lead to an accurate diagnosis and the development of an effective, personalised treatment plan. Early and proactive intervention can make a substantial difference in managing symptoms and improving overall wellbeing.

At Oxford CBT, we are committed to your mental health and wellbeing. Our team of experienced professionals offers a warm and welcoming environment where you can receive comprehensive evaluations, evidence-based treatments, and ongoing support. We understand the importance of nurturing relationships and providing compassionate care tailored to your unique needs. Whether you are seeking help for yourself or a loved one, we are here to support you every step of the way. Reach out to us at Oxford CBT to learn more about our services and how we can assist you in your journey towards better mental health.


  1. Leitner, Y. (2014). “The Co-Occurrence of Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children – What Do We Know?” This review article provides a comprehensive overview of the prevalence and implications of co-occurring ADHD and autism in children. It is published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and is available [here].
  2.  Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., Chandler, S., Loucas, T., & Baird, G. (2008). “Psychiatric disorders in children with autism spectrum disorders: Prevalence, comorbidity, and associated factors in a population-derived sample.” This study provides prevalence rates of ADHD among children with autism and is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The full text can be accessed [here].
  3.  Antshel, K. M., Zhang-James, Y., Wagner, K. E., Ledesma, A., & Faraone, S. V. (2016). “An update on the comorbidity of ADHD and ASD: A focus on clinical management.” This article discusses the comorbidity of ADHD and autism and its clinical implications, published in Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. The article is available [here].

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