Everyone develops at their own pace, but there are key benchmarks and behaviors that fall along a predictable timeline. Having difficulties with focus, communication, and impulsivity outside certain developmental stages may point to a person having attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While they have many symptoms in common, they are different disorders requiring different kinds of treatment and symptom management.
The Differences Between ADHD and ASD
ADHD and ASD have some similarities, like sensory sensitivity and a reliance on repetitive movements to self-soothe. Knowing how these disorders differ is essential for identifying the right approach to managing them. Seeking a professional medical evaluation makes it easier to understand whether someone fits into an ADHD or ASD diagnosis.
Age at Diagnosis
ADHD will often present in children who are approaching or at school age, while ASD can present in kids as young as 2 years old. What accounts for this age difference? Parents typically intervene earlier if their child experiences a delay in speech acquisition, a common developmental benchmark during the toddler years.
Academic and Social Development
ADHD is often thought of as a disorder of impulsivity; for example, children may have difficulty telling when it’s their turn to talk or staying focused on classroom activities. This behavior can be disruptive in school and lead to both academic and social challenges.
ASD often presents as a lack of understanding of social cues, resulting in a child struggling to make friends or build social connections. Children with ASD may avoid eye contact and seem disinterested in peer engagement.
Ability to Focus
While those with ADHD may have extreme difficulty focusing on one subject and may even be physically unable to sit still, they can also become hyper-focused on one thing. Hyperfocus is the fixation on a single subject or task and can be detrimental to other responsibilities.
Children and adults with ASD may also fixate on one task or subject. This intense focus can lead to difficulty switching tasks or outbursts at having to change focus. Additionally, it can lead to inflexibility in a person’s day-to-day routine.
How to Determine Whether ADHD or ASD is Present
For both ADHD and ASD, a medical professional will evaluate using diagnostic tests. These can include verbal tests and interviews with family members.
Diagnosing ADHD typically relies on recognizing a series of repeat behaviors. The diagnosis of ASD can involve more in-depth testing and questionnaires. Both may require specialists for an accurate diagnosis.
It’s also important to understand that some symptoms may overlap because both conditions are present—that is to say, someone with ASD can also have ADHD. This is slightly more likely in men than in women. This overlap can lead to misdiagnosing as one or the other, so it’s essential to talk to a doctor about all symptoms.
How to Manage ADHD and ASD
ADHD is often treated using a combination of medication and symptom management through behavioral therapy or skills and focus-based coaching.
ASD treatment usually does not involve medication because the options are limited. Instead, ASD is often treated through behavioral therapy and skill training/coaching alone. Skill training can help with focus and create regimens that work for someone with ASD, while behavioral therapy usually focuses on symptom management for additional support. If impulsivity and distracted thinking occur alongside other symptoms of ASD, then ADHD medication can sometimes help minimize those behaviors.
Both ADHD and ASD can lead to dietary challenges. In ASD, sensory sensitivity can lead to nutritional gaps where important vitamins and minerals are missing from a person’s diet. People with ADHD can miss meals due to distraction. Maintaining a healthy diet is essential for focus, energy, and overall health for both conditions.
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of ADHD or ASD, it’s crucial to seek a diagnosis and support as early as possible. Executive function coaching can be a positive step toward symptom management for both kids and adults after a diagnosis.