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ADHD vs. Autism

Autism and ADHD

Does your child often struggle to pay attention to things? Do they have a hard time with social interactions? Do they get easily overwhelmed to the point of meltdowns? Do they struggle with work and completing tasks? These can be signs of either an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Sometimes, the two even occur simultaneously (at the same time). In fact, a 2018 study conducted by Lydia Furman, M.D., who is a practicing pediatrician and professor at Case Western Reserve University Medical School, found that as many as half of all children with autism may also have ADHD.

If your child is struggling with either of these issues, you should know they are not alone. As of 2011, 9.4% of children in Texas had an ADHD diagnosis. Autism has a much lower diagnosis rate in Texas, with about 1.54% of Texans having ever received an ASD diagnosis.

Getting the proper diagnosis as early as possible helps kids get the best treatment and helps them learn to cope with this lifelong issue while they are young, which minimizes problems later in life. To get a proper diagnosis, you must know the key differences and similarities between ASD and ADHD.

What Is Autism?

ASD is considered a developmental disability that impacts the way that people socialize, communicate, and behave, although many adults with autism do not see their diagnosis as a disability. ASD has a very wide range of severity. Some people with ASD are non-verbal and have severe learning disabilities. Other people with autism speak perfectly fine and excel in academic environments but struggle with socialization.

People with ASD tend to be sensitive to stimuli and get easily overwhelmed by sounds, textures, and other sensory stimuli. It is very common for people with ASD to struggle to understand other people when engaging in social interactions. They may not understand body language, eye contact, or other social cues that are obvious to most people.

There is no one test for ASD. There are no specific genetic markers to look for. Most of what doctors use to diagnose are behavioral and developmental markers. Many people with autism struggle with early developmental markers. For example, they may learn to talk later than their peers. ASD may look different in girls than it does in boys. By the time a child is about 2 years old, an experienced professional may be able to make an accurate ASD diagnosis. However, many children do not receive their diagnosis until they are older.

There is no “cure” for autism. However, the younger a child is when they receive an accurate diagnosis, the easier it typically is for them to develop important skills.

Some common signs of ASD include:

  • Being very interested in people but not knowing how to talk, play, or relate to them
  • Repeating or echoing words or phrases said to them, or repeating words or phrases in place of normal language
  • Repeating actions over and over again
  • Having trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • Having unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
  • Losing skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)
  • Not pointing at objects to show interest (for example, not point at a firetruck)
  • Not looking at objects when another person points at them
  • Having trouble relating to others or not having an interest in other people at all
  • Having trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • Not playing “pretend” games (for example, not pretending to “cook” in a playhouse)
  • Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Preferring not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to
  • Appearing to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a very common neurodevelopmental disorder. It is often first diagnosed in childhood and typically lasts into adulthood. While there are different subtypes of ADHD, most people with ADHD struggle to focus and have great difficulty completing tasks. This can vary in severity from person to person. In many cases, ADHD causes people to struggle in school. They cannot focus on completing tasks or have a hard time making friends because they dominate conversations.

People with ADHD often have trouble sitting still and being quiet. They may always want to be on the move or leap from topic to topic, even when the topics don’t seem related. A child with ADHD may have a lot of trouble thinking things through or understanding how a consequence is related to the action that caused it.

Like with autism, there is no single test for ADHD. While certain genetic (inborn) traits and other factors may be related to a child’s ADHD, that is not how a diagnosis is obtained. Clinical professionals look for the signs of ADHD, along with the child’s medical history, to rule out other potential problems, like hearing or vision loss, which could make it appear that the child is unfocused. ADHD can be diagnosed as early as age 2 or 3, but diagnoses often do not occur until a child is school-aged.

There is no cure for ADHD, but medication is a common form of treatment. Medication is not considered appropriate in every case. Behavioral therapy is also commonly used to treat ADHD. All children are different, and their treatment often needs to be specific to them.

Some common signs of ADHD include:

  • Struggling to finish tasks
  • Making careless mistakes or taking unnecessary risks
  • Having a hard time resisting temptation
  • Putting off starting tasks
  • Having trouble thinking things through
  • Daydreaming a lot
  • Forgetting or losing things a lot
  • Paying very little attention to detail
  • Becoming extremely focused on things they find interesting
  • Having trouble taking turns
  • Having difficulty getting along with others
  • Talking a lot
  • Moving a lot

How Are Autism and ADHD Similar?

As you can see, ASD and ADHD have several similarities. Neither of them has a single, definitive test, which can make them difficult to diagnose, and both disorders can show up in girls differently than they do in boys.

In both cases, children often struggle with school. They may have a hard time learning about things that they do not feel are important or that they do not like to spend time thinking about.

They may have difficulty understanding and controlling their emotions, or understanding how things are related to one another. Emotional intelligence is something people with both ADHD and ASD often struggle with.

In both cases, they may struggle to relate to their classmates and to maintain long-term relationships. For example, children with ADHD and children with ASD may struggle with sharing or taking turns doing things that their friends would like to do instead of what they want to do. They may have a hard time with nonverbal communication or understanding subtleties.

People with ADHD and those with ASD may get very focused on an activity or topic they really like, to the point that it may seem obsessive, although children with ADHD often switch out these topics regularly (every few weeks), whereas people with autism tend to stay focused on these topics for a longer period of time.

Despite all of these similarities, there are key differences between ASD and ADHD. Understanding the differences between the two often comes down to understanding the root causes of a given behavior.

How Are Autism and ADHD Different?

To know the difference between ASD and ADHD, you have to understand what is causing your child to act the way they act. While ASD and ADHD have similar symptoms, the causes for these symptoms are very different.

For example, both children with ASD and children with ADHD may struggle with socialization, but the reasons they are struggling are very different. A child with ASD has a lot of difficulties understanding other people’s emotions and social cues. Eye contact and body language do not make sense to them as a form of communication, and they can’t easily process what those cues mean.

A child with ADHD, on the other hand, likely understands those social cues. They know how to use those cues and understand what they mean. However, they may struggle to pay attention to people when they are using them and, since they are more subtle than verbal explanations, don’t notice that those cues are happening.

Ultimately, children with ADHD are struggling to pay attention to everything that is happening around them, but they usually understand what those things mean. People with autism typically have an easier time noticing what is happening but have more difficulty ascribing meaning to the things that they notice.

Treatment at SUN Behavioral Houston

If you’re looking to find high-quality ADHD treatment program for adolescent, SUN Behavioral Houston has one that is designed specifically for them. We can help your child get a proper diagnosis and the treatment they need to live the most fulfilling life possible. We use a multi-step approach to treat ADHD.


Typical medications include the brand names Adderall®, Ritalin®, Vyvanse®, and Concerta®, all forms of dexmethylphenidate, dextroamphetamine, lisdexamfetamine, or methylphenidate. It may sound unhelpful to give a stimulant to a highly stimulated teen, but the medication improves their ability to focus.

Medication is not always the best approach. At SUN Behavioral, stimulants are given at the lowest dose (which may increase with time), or another medication that may interact better is given, as seen with time. Activities are also considered due to potential side effects. For example, you wouldn’t want a student driver to be taking something that might cause drowsiness.

Behavioral Training Therapy

Behavioral therapy will have a family education approach at SUN Behavioral Houston, with a focus on behavioral training. This is learned by parents and teens to help the patient achieve success at school, home, work, and in the community.

Through therapy, your child will learn skills like waiting their turn, how to manage tasks, and other helpful solutions. These and others can be practiced at home.

Other helpful tips to help manage ADHD

  • Food/drink — Caffeine consumption should be avoided later in the day.
  • Routine — It’s incredibly helpful to establish a structure within daily activities. This keeps a person’s focus on track and helps to keep them integrated into school activities with other students rather than being pulled out for disruption.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Exercise.
  • Acknowledge successes and small accomplishments.

We will also provide maintenance to see that the patient is showing improvement with medications, therapy, and school adjustments. Continuing to identify a path that works for managing ADHD is an ongoing process.

Get Help Now

Does your child or another loved one in your life show signs of ADHD or ASD? Do they show signs of both? If you’re concerned that your child is struggling, get them the help they need. Call SUN Houston now at(713) 796-2273 to discuss treatment options.



What is the main difference between ADHD and autism?

One of the big differences between ADHD and autism is what is causing the dysfunction. For example, children with ADHD and those with autism may both struggle with social situations, but for different reasons. A child with ADHD may struggle to maintain friendships because they are always dominating the conversation and talking over others. A child with autism may struggle to maintain friendships because they don’t understand social cues like eye contact or body language.

Can ADHD be mistaken for autism?

It can sometimes be difficult to identify whether a child’s symptoms are caused by ADHD or autism. The two disorders can also co-occur (happen at the same time), which can make them difficult to tell apart. Only a medical professional can provide an accurate diagnosis.

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