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Are autism and ADHD the same?

Updated: May 5

The terms autism and ADHD are often used interchangeably, leading many to believe that they are the same disorder and causing a lot of confusion. This can be forgiven since our understanding of mental health, genetic disorders, spectrum disorders and trauma is all still being researched. In reality, autism and ADHD are two distinct, yet often overlapping, conditions that require specific treatment plans. In this article, we examine the differences between autism and ADHD and how they should be addressed, treated and managed.

Let me highlight right away that these conditions should not be considered mental illnesses, individuals who have both or either of these conditions can not and should not be "cured".

1. Overview of ADHD and Autism

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts how a person’s brain works and affects their ability to concentrate and focus on specific tasks. Symptoms of ADHD can vary between males and females, so there are different things to look out for and research is still ongoing due to underdiagnosed ADHD in females. ADHD has 2 subsections hyperactivity and inattention within each subsection there are 9 symptoms; an individual must display 6 symptoms from either subsection to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the development of a person's social, communication, and behavioural skills. Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning any person can fall within the spectrum ranging from extremely mild symptoms to severe. Autistic individuals may struggle with communication in general but especially emotive communication, recognising emotion and social cues and can become easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli or over-stimulating environments. In order to diagnose Autism medical professionals will usually focus on two main categories "communication skills" and "repetitive, restraining sensory behaviours and interests".

Both ADHD and autism are usually identified and diagnosed in childhood however both conditions are life-long and although these symptoms can be managed and reduced they can not be cured and therefore the conditions can continue into adulthood.

2. How Autism and ADHD Are Different

The two conditions share some similar characteristics, yet there are fundamental differences between them that can be very confusing to untangle.

ADHD tends to concentrate more heavily on behaviour whereas autism looks more specifically at social skills and settings.

As previously mentioned there are 18 different diagnosable symptoms for ADHD and a lot of these are related to "poor" behaviour such as interrupting, inability to stay still, rudeness, impatience and impulsiveness, not often symptoms seen in autism. It is worth noting that symptoms can display differently in females and are more overlapping with autism with females with ADHD tending to be quieter, withdrawn, anxious and have the inability to focus/concentrate often daydreaming for long periods.

ADHD is seen as more "chaotic" than autism and the symptoms often correspond with this.

Autism is a complex condition which ranges in severity. Although there are multiple diagnosable symptoms there are more prominent themes, focusing on social interaction and behaviours which reflect that.

Those with autism tend to be withdrawn and struggle in social settings, interacting with others and understanding emotive cues. Unlike ADHD those with autism tend to become fixated on details and particular interests and display a keen need for routine and familiarity in their setting.

3. Overlapping Symptoms of Autism and ADHD

The ven diagram above will give you a visual representation of just some of the symptoms of both ADHD and Autism, how they are different and some of their overlapping symptoms.

It's really important to understand that these conditions obviously come with their daily struggles but individuals with ADHD and Autism are not deficient in intelligence, creativity or sensitivity, only that they process emotion and education differently. It's important as a society that we adapt what we can and in ways we can to make the world safer for everyone rather than trying to mould people into the idea of what we think they should be.

4. Treatment Options for Autism and ADHD

As I've previously mentioned neither of these conditions can be "cured" and trying to achieve this can be incredibly insensitive to anyone living with these conditions.

Treatments for these conditions are simply to manage the conditions and for some make daily life more bearable and easy to navigate.

Plans and structure for the individual can be a strong step forward to make sure their educational learning is on track. Parents, teachers and counsellors must be all "on the same page" in terms of managing either condition in an educational setting so that the individual is not excluded or their education negatively affected. Making sure there is support in place can be hugely comforting and stabilising.

Getting a diagnosis isn't always the easiest thing to do, especially with an overwhelmed NHS, but once a diagnosis is given, medication (primarily for ADHD) can be prescribed and a mental health team that specialises in the condition can be appointed or referred.

Behavioural therapy or CBT can be beneficial to anyone. However those with autism or ADHD may find it particularly helpful when it comes to stabilising moods in stressful situations and keeping anxiety to a minimum.

5. Conclusion

Autism and ADHD are both serious conditions that can impact a person’s life in significant ways. While the two may have similar symptoms, it is important to recognize the distinct differences between them.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of autism or ADHD, contact a qualified healthcare professional for an evaluation and personalized treatment plan.

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