Comparing ADHD vs Autism
How they are similar and how to tell them apart
There are many similarities and overlapping traits between ADHD and Autism, to the point where sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. Each person’s experience will be different, but I’ll outline some of the similarities and highlight the differences.
While ADHD and Autism have a lot of similarities, many of the traits which seem the same have very different underlying contributing factors.
It’s important to note, however, that many people (like me) are both Autistic and ADHD (AuDHD), and so factors from one can influence the other.
Many Autistics and people with ADHD experience social challenges, primarily because we’re in the neurominority, and our social structures have developed with only neurotypicals in mind.
The Social Model of Disability
People with ADHD may struggle with making eye contact, but this is usually related to difficulty regulating our attention, and being distracted by extraneous stimuli.
People with ADHD are extremely observant and many of us are scanning our environment, noticing things that others don’t. For example, if I’m sitting having coffee with my husband in a coffee shop, I may not be making eye contact because I’m observing everything going on around me.
I’ll pick up on how each customer is treating the staff based on body language and facial expressions, how tired and overworked the young staff-persons look, that guy who just cut in line and doesn’t think anyone saw…
Meanwhile a neurotypical (NT) person may simply be tuning out the sights and sounds around them, focusing on the conversation and the person in front of them. Divergent brains have a much harder time filtering out extraneous stimuli.
For Autistics, it can be physically uncomfortable, even painful, to make prolonged eye-contact. This is not a hard-and-fast rule however, Autistics are individuals, and our neurotype will look different in each person.
Both Autistics and ADHDers may experience social anxiety due to repeated negative experiences. For those with ADHD it may come from impulsivity, worrying about doing something without thinking, and then later regretting it.
For Autistics it may come from communication differences and the fact that a lot of spaces are not Autistic-friendly. Our needs, such as sensory sensitivities, usually not considered. We may also become overwhelmed by crowds and need quiet downtime to recover from socializing.
Nearly all neurodivergent people struggle with executive functioning. This includes mental tasks such as:
- Inhibition (impulse control)
- Working memory (short-term memory)
- Planning, organization, and time management
- Emotional regulation (self-regulation and dysregulation)
- Cognitive rigidity (mental flexibility)
Part of mental flexibility is the ability to adapt to changes. Those of us who struggle with rigid thinking patterns can really get thrown off by unexpected changes or roadblocks.
Whereas ADHDers benefit from schedules and routine, we can easily become bored with repetition. A lot of ADHDers enjoy spontaneity and novelty, while also finding predictability helpful. We’re enigmas!
In contrast, a lot of Autistics struggle with unexpected changes, or when something doesn’t go as planned, due to cognitive rigidity. We can have a really difficult time “going with the flow” and can become highly anxious or overwhelmed when things don’t go how we were expecting.
Hyperfocus and special interests
Hyperfocus and special interests are two different things which are often conflated.
Hyperfocus also stems from cognitive rigidity, wherein we have difficulty transitioning from one task to another. If we become engrossed in an activity or project, we can lose all track of time, even forgetting to eat and drink.
ADHDers tend to get really excited about something, do all the research, gather all the materials, and then lose interest partway. We often have a number of incomplete projects we just couldn’t finish.
Both ADHDers and Autistics can experience hyperfocus, but it is not the same as a special interest.
Special interests are topics or activities that a person finds so intensely fascinating and enjoyable they seek to learn everything they possibly can about it. A lot of Autistics have a special interest, something we love and are incredibly knowledgeable about (can you guess what mine is?).
Many neurodivergent people struggle with emotional regulation. There are many reasons for this. Autistics and ADHDers are more likely to experience discrimination, social rejection, and trauma — all of which can have an impact on how we perceive, process, and express emotions.
Our brains are also wired differently, so we are already neurologically set up to experience and respond to the world differently from others.
ADHDers and Autistics both often experience intense emotions. However, it’s very important to note that impulsive emotional reactions are much different from meltdowns.
ADHDers are more likely to respond impulsively to uncomfortable and distressing emotions. Autistics can struggle with intense emotions and impulsivity too, however we can also experience such a high degree of distress that we become completely overwhelmed.
This is often referred to as a “meltdown”, or a nervous system overload. When a person gets to this state of extreme dysregulation, they are no longer fully in control. Their survival instincts are taking over and the reasoning part of their brain is unaccessible until they feel safe again.
ADHDers are more likely to struggle with fine motor skills, whereas Autistics are more likely to struggle with gross motor skills — again, that’s not to say Autistics don’t struggle with fine motor or ADHDers don’t struggle with gross motor — this is just a generality and there are always individual differences.
People with ADHD are more likely to have co-occurring dysgraphia and other fine-motor skill issues. Autistics are also highly represented in people with dysgraphia, but more than 90% of ADHDers have weaknesses in our fine motor skills.
Autistics are more likely to have developmental coordination disorder (DCD — also called dyspraxia), as well as hypermobility spectrum disorders, such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).
Many Autistics and ADHDers struggle with interoception as well as proprioception. Interoception is the way we perceive and interpret the messages sent from within our bodies (such as thirst and hunger). Proprioception gives us awareness of where our body is in space, and in relation to other objects.
Stimming vs fidgeting
ADHDers and Autistics also have different ways of moving our bodies and experiencing the world. ADHDers are more likely to fidget, moving our bodies in ways that help us focus and pay attention.
Autistics are more likely to stim, ways of moving our bodies that help with self-regulation and can also be very enjoyable.
More similarities than differences
The more we are learning about Autistic and ADHD brains, the more we are finding significant overlap between the two neurotypes.
Just like anything as complex as human neurology, there exists an incredibly wide spectrum of traits and individual experiences. Those of us who are AuDHD (Autistic and ADHD both) may have an even harder time differentiating our ADHD characteristics from the Autistic traits, but perhaps it doesn’t really matter.
This is also one reason why many people prefer the umbrella term Neurodivergent (ND), which simply refers to anyone whose neurology differs from the statistical ‘norm’, or majority.
Whatever terminology you prefer, don’t forget about the many assets and strengths that also come with having a uniquely wired brain.
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
My ADHD Brain and Autistic Brain Are Not Friends
ADHD: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Impulsivity: It’s A Neurodivergent Thing
When you join medium, as a member you’ll have access to unlimited reads for only $5 per month. If you use my referral link, I’ll earn a small commission, and you’ll earn my undying gratitude.
If you’d prefer give a one-time tip, you can support my writing on Ko-Fi — also, it’s free to follow me on Facebook!
Bos, D. J., Dobos, D., Oranje, B., & Durston, S. (2020, November 10). Overlapping symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders: more similarities than differences. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/7xspg
Lau-Zhu, A., Fritz, A., & McLoughlin, G. (2019). Overlaps and distinctions between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder in young adulthood: Systematic review and guiding framework for EEG-imaging research. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 96, 93–115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.10.009
Lum, J.A.G., Shandley, K., Albein-Urios, N., Kirkovski, M., Papadopoulos, N., Wilson, R.B., Enticott, P.G. and Rinehart, N.J. (2021). Meta-Analysis Reveals Gait Anomalies in Autism. Autism Research, 14, 733–747. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2443
Mayes, S. D., Breaux, R. P., Calhoun, S. L., & Frye, S. S. (2019). High Prevalence of Dysgraphia in Elementary Through High School Students With ADHD and Autism. Journal of Attention Disorders, 23(8), 787–796. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054717720721
Valagussa, G., Trentin, L., Signori, A. and Grossi, E. (2018). Toe Walking Assessment in Autism Spectrum Disorder Subjects: A Systematic Review. Autism Research, 11, 1404–1415. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2009