There is a great overlap between ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), yet, they are still two distinct conditions. We asked Dr. Sheila Woods, MD, FAAP - a pediatrician specializing in ADHD for over 35 years - to share her views on differences, similarities and treatment.
Disclaimer: the information contained on this website does not constitute medical advice. If you have concerns about your own health or the health of someone else, you should speak to your doctor.
What are the differences between ADHD and ASD?
The key differences between the two conditions are that ADHD involves hyperactivity, inattention and impulsive symptoms in various combinations. With ASD, the deficits are primarily in social communication, social interaction, restricted communication and repetitive patterns of behavior.
However, there are some symptoms which overlap with both conditions which are not listed in the DSM5*. For example, executive function skills can be impaired – skills associated with working memory and the ability to plan and organize.
*Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
How do you differentiate between ADHD and ASD?
Kids with ASD not only do they have impairment with their executive function skills, they also have significant social interaction and communication problems. Kids with just ASD are more likely to also have significant impairments in speech and language development and learning disorders. Children with ADHD won’t have such severe social and communication problems. They may struggle socially but more because of their hyperactive or impulsive nature.
What is the prevalence of co-occurring ADHD and ASD?
In my professional experience approximately 50 percent of kids with ASD also have ADHD. ASD is usually diagnosed first and then, as a child grows older, we may see more difficulties with their attention span, levels of activity and impulsiveness. If these symptoms occur in addition to the ASD symptoms, that is when we would consider a combined diagnosis. It is not as common for ADHD to be diagnosed before a diagnosis of ASD. From an early age, it is clear that the social communication skills are lacking – which is a symptom of ASD.
Are there effective types of treatment for ADHD and/or ASD?
For kids who have ASD and ADHD, stimulant medications and/or atomoxetine have been effective in treating the ADHD symptoms. However, if a child is particularly aggressive and irritable, which can be attributed to symptoms of ASD, then Risperidone or Abilify - second generation antipsychotics may work better to target those symptoms*.
For most mental health conditions including ADHD, ASD, depression and anxiety, children manage better with a therapist using tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). For ASD, there are two popular forms of therapy – Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBA). There is also a version of CBT adapted specifically for ADHD.
*Licensed indication varies between countries