What’s the Difference Between Autism and ADHD?

Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are common conditions that can affect a person’s behaviour, emotional development, attention span, and social skills, but they are two very different conditions. Diagnosis for Autism and ADHD is more common among children, but adults can also be diagnosed for both conditions at any stage. Diagnosis for autism can occur through autism spectrum testing, and ADHD can be diagnosed through a specialised ADHD screening process.

Identifying the difference between Autism and ADHD can be challenging, but it’s helpful to stay informed and tell the two conditions apart, even though they are often linked.

This article will cover the following key questions about autism and ADHD:

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), known as Autism, is a developmental disorder that affects how a person interacts with others and their environment. People with Autism think, feel and experience the world differently from neurotypical people.

Autism is a lifelong disability that exists on a spectrum because not everyone with Autism has the same experiences. They display different characteristics and to different levels as well. Asperger’s Syndrome is on the Autism spectrum

People with Autism can be proficient with logical or visual thinking, have a sharp eye for detail, are skilled with technology, have impeccable memory of facts for topics of interest. These topics of interest can be strong focus points for people with Autism, such as a deep love for trains or Disney.

Their communication style tends to be honest and direct, and they may struggle with sarcasm and small talk. Sometimes, people with Autism can have difficulties communicating verbally so they repeat words and phrases and can take longer to process conversations.

Overstimulation can cause distress, as people with Autism experience sensory overload with bright lights, loud noises, and different smells. This can impact their social interactions if they are also experiencing discomfort while in social settings. It is common for people with Autism to not use eye contact, isolate themselves from a group, and respond to queues differently.

Read our autism spectrum disorder guide for more information for things you should know as a caregiver.

What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder impacting both children and adults. Up until 1987, ADHD was previously formally known as ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder; until the hyperactivity component was medically recognised as existing on the same spectrum.

Key symptoms of ADHD include problems focusing, retaining attention, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and impulse control. There are three subtypes of ADHD:

  1. Inattentive presentation
  2. Hyperactive or impulsive presentation
  3. Combination presentation

The ADHD diagnosis process generally occurs when a child is around the age of two, however many adults realise later in life they have had the condition all along and not been aware of ADHD symptoms.

If you have a child with ADHD or need more information, read our factual guide for concerned caregivers here.

What’s the relationship between Autism and ADHD?

Autism has a history of being misdiagnosed as ADHD. While characteristics differ they can be simultaneously present, so it is possible for kids to have not just one condition, but both.

It is more common for people with Autism to have ADHD, rather than people with ADHD also experiencing Autism.

This can make things complicated initially for diagnosis. However, practitioners can implement early intervention strategies to assist the child and their symptoms while waiting on a more accurate diagnosis, no matter if they have Autism or ADHD.

There are some risk factors for those with ASD or ADHD, including susceptibility to other disorders like depression and anxiety. These can be treated with professional help.

What are the main differences between Autism and ADHD?

The main difference between the two conditions is that Autism is a recognised disability as it is a developmental delay, whereas ADHD is a neurological disorder.

Attention Span

People with Autism can focus on one thing for a prolonged period of time, usually when it is a topic of interest. Their uneven pattern of thinking makes it difficult to move from one activity to another. They may find it difficult to focus on tasks they are not interested in.

People with ADHD find it difficult to regulate their focus. They may hyper focus on one activity for a short period of time but generally have a limited attention span, even for things they enjoy. Mostly, they will try to avoid anything they need to concentrate on.


Children with Autism tend to have interests in specific things such as food, toys, movies and TV shows, and often will not deviate from these interests for a very long time. For example, a child with Autism might have a life-long love for Disney, but have a six-month love for spaghetti bolognese and never eat it again.

Children with ADHD do not experience the same behaviours as children with Autism, as they do not have the same need for repetition and order. They dislike doing the same thing repetitively and for prolonged periods of time.

Emotional Expression

Issues surrounding emotional expression and emotional regulation are present in people with Autism, but not so much people with ADHD. People with Autism can struggle to articulate their feelings.

Some trouble can arise when language skills are impaired by an ADHD symptom, for example, difficulty expressing with words due to inattention or hyperactivity. Meanwhile, other kids with ADHD can talk nonstop and monopolise conversations.

Social Situations

Social skills vary between people with Autism and ADHD. People with Autism have difficulty picking up on cues and might struggle to connect with others. Those with ADHD can find leisure activities in social settings difficult because of trouble sitting still and concentrating.

Support services available in Australia

Parents and carers want the best for their children, and whether your child has Autism, ADHD, or both, there are support services available to assist your child’s individual needs.

Specialists can tailor treatment to suit your child’s symptoms and provide tools to help them live the best quality of life possible, because it is possible!

Special Education

The Australian Autistic community is an inclusive one, providing answers to parents’ concerns for ongoing treatment. As your child gets older, their teachers and support networks can hone in on your child’s individual interests and build on their strengths and skills based off these.

For example, many kids with Autism attend mainstream schools in a supported classroom, and have opportunities for further assisted study at TAFE and other institutions.

If your child has ADHD and autism, they can be supported in schools with learning tailored around their different learning abilities.


Behavioural therapy, speech pathology, and occupational therapy are options for assisting your child’s developmental needs.

Community Support

I CAN Network provides autistic-lead group mentoring programs, training and consultancy. With half of their staff identifying as Autistic, they empower 9-20 year old people with an “I can” attitude.

Autism Community Network (ACN) is donation-funded organisation and advocates for the reframing of Autism as not a disability, but as a different way of experiencing the world that offers enriching new views.

Autism Alert Cards are a new initiative by Autism Australia (ASPECT) that assists people with Autism to communicate their needs for support from others, usually in a community setting. These cards are available for free.

Yellow Ladybugs is an Autistic-lead organisation dedicated to the happiness, success and celebration of autistic girls and women.

Looking For ASD/ADHD Diagnosis Near You?

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