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ADHD vs ASD: Knowing the Difference

Posted by Brian Spence on Aug 19, 2019 8:00:00 AM

Autism, ADHD, AspergersIf you're in the Behavioral Health field, you've likely worked with people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These two developmental disorders can be difficult to distinguish at times, so how do you tell the difference?

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is a developmental disorder that makes understanding social cues difficult, leading to problems interacting with others, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Before 2013, a person could be diagnosed with one of three conditions:

  • Asperger's syndrome
  • Autistic disorder
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

Changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders combined these conditions under the umbrella "autism spectrum disorder."

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a developmental disorder that can lead to increased levels of hyperactivity, difficulty sustaining attention, and impulsivity. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD. While many people experience increases in energy levels and difficulty concentrating from time to time, these problems significantly impair day-to-day functioning in people with ADHD. ADHD diagnoses fall under three different types:

  • Hyperactive/impulsive type
  • Inattentive type
  • Combined type

How Can You Tell the Difference Between ADHD and ASD?

Why are these developmental disorders hard to distinguish at times? As discussed in an article in Medical News Today, people with either disorder have similar difficulties in certain areas, such as:

  • Social Interactions. A person with ADHD may interrupt conversations or have difficulty sustaining attention in conversation. Social mishaps in ASD are often caused by misunderstood social cues.
  • Regulating Attention. Both people with ADHD and ASD can have difficulties sustaining attention. Some important characteristics to look for in ASD that are not found in ADHD are an intense interest in one subject, repetitive motions (called "stimming"), and trouble making eye contact. However, people with ADHD are sometimes able to "hyperfocus" on activities that are interesting to them, leading to another source of confusion between the two disorders.
  • Impulsivity. Problems with impulsivity can be found in both ADHD and ASD. This is likely because both disorders impair important executive functioning skills.

One of the key ways to tell ADHD and ASD apart is to consider the degree to which these symptoms are caused by difficulty interpreting social situations. If a child understands social situations but often breaks social rules (not by fault of their own, but because of impaired executive functioning), then ADHD is more likely. If the child is breaking social rules because he/she does not understand them, then ASD is more likely. However, 14% of children with ADHD also have ASD, so it's possible both disorders are present.

It's important to note that no two people with ADHD or ASD are the same, and people with the same diagnosis can display different behaviors. Knowing the difference between these diagnoses is important to apply the best interventions and accommodations possible for each individual.

If you're a Behavioral Health professional who works with people with ADHD or ASD, we at Staffing Plus, Inc. can connect you with potential employers.

If you are interested in learning more about this and related topics, visit the Behavioral Health section of our blog.


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