Autism vs. ADHD: A Deep Dive into Two Complex Landscapes

Vlad Solomakha, Co-founder of Numo
May 21, 2024

ADHD and ASD - why do these two seem to walk together oh so often? Is it just stereotypes and misconceptions, or is there some truth to it after all? 🧐

Spoiler alert: it’s a bit of both…of everything! 

So, buckle up as we discern truth from fiction and determine the differences, similarities, and comorbidities of ADHD and autism.

Today, we’ll cover: 

  • Understanding ADHD: We'll unpack the complexities of ADHD, including its symptoms, subtypes, and common misconceptions.
  • Understanding Autism: We'll delve into the world of Autism, exploring its symptoms, subtypes, and common misconceptions.
  • Distinguishing ADHD from Autism: We'll highlight the common symptoms, where they overlap, and the distinct symptoms that set them apart. We'll also provide an overview of the diagnostic criteria for each condition.
  • The Phenomenon of Comorbidity: We'll explain comorbidity and discuss the frequency and implications of comorbidity between ADHD and Autism.
  • Management and Treatment: We'll dive deep into how managing both conditions differs and explore the complexities of living with both simultaneously.
  • The Power of Connection and Community: We'll discuss the value of shared experiences and community in navigating ADHD and introduce Numo, a space for individuals with ADHD to connect, share strategies, and learn from one another.

Are you ready?

Let’s dig in! 

[Unpacking ADHD]Unpacking ADHD and Its Symptoms

ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects children and adults, and a persistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity characterizes it.

Before we go any further, let's bust a myth right out of the gate. ADHD isn't just about being hyperactive or having a short attention span. ADHD is like an iceberg; what you see on the surface is just a tiny fraction of what's underneath.

Though the distinctions are a lot less blurred in reality, for simplicity, let’s say we can divide ADHD into three subtypes: 

  • Predominantly Inattentive
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive
  • Combined Presentation

The Inattentive type is like that daydreamer in class, forgetting homework and missing details. The Hyperactive-Impulsive type is your classic Energizer Bunny, who's always on the go, fidgety, and often acts before thinking. The Combined type is a mix of both.

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ADHD Symptoms: More Than Meets the Eye

It’s easy to think about ADHD as “just being easily distracted” or “hyper.” At least, that’s what stereotypes say. Yet, the reality is that ADHD symptoms are more pervasive than that and can significantly impact everything in ADHDer’s life. 

Discussing ADHD symptoms is a whole charter by itself, and we have a dedicated write-up to explore how ADHD symptoms manifest across ages and genders

To give you a short primer, however, we’re talking about:

  • Difficulty staying organized and following instructions
  • Trouble paying attention and keeping up with conversations
  • Time blindness and issues with time management. 
  • Impulsivity leads to rash decisions that aren’t thought through

People with ADHD often experience intense emotions and have difficulty managing them. One minute, you're on top of the world; the next, you're in the dumps. 

Suffice it to say, ADHD is a lot of things at once, and although some claims might seem ridiculous to an outsider, someone with zero experience with ADHD, trust me. It is even worse than it sounds sometimes. 

From ADHD paralysis to feelings of burnout, ADHD can feel, at times, debilitating. 

Common Misconceptions about ADHD: Clearing the Air

Now, let's clear up some common misconceptions about ADHD. No, it's not just a "kid's disorder." Adults can have it, too, and often do. It's not a result of bad parenting or too much screen time. And no, people with ADHD aren't just "lazy" or "unmotivated." They're dealing with a medical condition affecting their brain's wiring.

And perhaps the biggest misconception of all: People with ADHD can just "snap out of it." If only it were that simple! 

It’s not something you can fix by, I don’t know, meditating or dRiNkInG mOrE wAtEr. Heck, sometimes even medication doesn’t help with all the symptoms. 

Ironically, these misconceptions about ADHD are comorbidity in their own right. It’s common for ADHDers to feel misunderstood and isolated from their peers who just don’t really understand it. Feelings of social isolation and ostracization that follows can sometimes make matters only worse.

And speaking of medical conditions that are often misunderstood…

[Unpacking Autism]Autism Spectrum Disorder 101: Learning the Basics

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is like a vast, diverse forest, with each tree representing a unique individual with their own set of characteristics. 

It's a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior.

Now, let's clear up a common misconception right off the bat. Autism isn't a disease that needs to be cured. It's a different way of experiencing the world. And while it can present challenges, it also comes with its own set of strengths and abilities.

The Spectrum of Autism

Autism is a "spectrum" disorder because of its many symptoms and severity. Some people may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

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Autism Symptoms: A Closer Look

Autism symptoms can be as diverse as the people who experience them. But for the sake of clarity, let's break them down into a few key areas:

  • Social Interaction and Communication: This can include challenges with social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and developing and maintaining relationships. Like playing in a staged reenactment of Lost in Translation, except you’re not Bill Muray, and everything kind of sucks. 
  • Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors: Individuals with autism may have repetitive movements, rigid routines, fixated interests, or sensory sensitivities. These rigid routines have almost a ceremonial air, where even a slight disruption can be jarring and unwelcome. 
  • Unique Strengths and Abilities: Many people with autism have unique strengths and abilities, such as exceptional memory skills, keen attention to detail, and high levels of creativity. 

Common Misconceptions about Autism: Setting the Record Straight

There are many misconceptions about autism, so let's set the record straight on a few. 

For the LAST TIME.

👏Vaccines 👏do 👏 not 👏cause 👏 autism

Multiple scientific studies have thoroughly debunked this myth. So stop asking. And stop arguing. I will fight you, I swear. 🔪

Second, people with autism do have emotions and can form social connections. They might just express and experience them differently.

Third, not all individuals with autism are alike. Remember the forest analogy? Each tree is unique, just like each person with autism.

And finally, just because some people with autism have special interests in which they are highly skilled, don’t treat all of them like it’s Rain Man and their name is Dustin Hoffman. Stereotyping is never cool, folks (unless we’re talking literal stereos and their types).

[Common in ADHD and ASD]Common Ground: ADHD and Autism Similarities

ADHD and Autism, while distinct, share some intriguing commonalities. Let's explore these shared characteristics:

  • Difficulty with Social Skills: Both ADHD and autism can make the social world a challenging terrain to navigate. Individuals may struggle to pick up on social cues, and maintaining friendships can be tough, and they may feel awkward or out of place in social situations. It's not that they don't want to connect with others; it's just that the social rules and norms can seem confusing and overwhelming.
  • Challenges with Focus: Whether it's an uninteresting lecture or a mundane task, maintaining attention can be a Herculean task for individuals with ADHD and autism. Their minds might wander or need help to stay engaged, especially if the task doesn't spark their interest.
  • Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment, without thinking about the consequences, can be a common thread in ADHD and Autism. This impulsivity can manifest in various ways, from blurting out inappropriate comments to struggling to wait their turn in conversations or activities.

Both conditions struggle in similar areas of life, making it difficult for some to distinguish between them.

Yet, digging deeper, we will realize that these struggles come from different places. 

Which ones, exactly? Well, let’s find out! 

[Symptoms Differences]The Distinguishing Factors: ADHD vs. Autism Symptoms Differences

1. Social Interactions

While both conditions can involve social difficulties, the nature of these challenges can differ. In ADHD, social struggles often stem from impulsivity or inattention. In Autism, social challenges are often due to difficulty understanding social norms and cues.

2. Routine and Repetitive Behaviors

 For ADHDers, the routine can be difficult to adhere to. Ebbs and flows of ADHD are such that you can wake up planning to do specifically one thing only and end up doing something else…or nothing at all. In contrast, people with autism are often inseparable from their routine, and any deviations, especially forced, can cause upset. 

3. Attention Span

This one is probably the most tricky because it’s not uncommon to find ADHDer and a person with autism distracted and seemingly not paying attention.

The difference here is that for someone with ADHD, a short attention span applies to everything, even the things they legitimately enjoy.

For a person with autism, however, it all depends on a subject or a hobby. If it’s something that they have a deeply vested interest in, then you’d be hard-pressed to separate the two.

That is where this misconception about autistics being “naturally gifted” at this or other thing comes from. It’s more likely that they have studied a specific subject with laser focus for hundreds of hours

Where does this bring us? 

The devil, once again, is in the details. Although from the surface-level reading, ASD and ADHD feel similar - issues with attention span, problems with social interactions, etc. - the nuance reveals that both origins and manifestations of these symptoms are vastly different. People aren’t just paying attention to see them. Ironic, isn’t it?

But! That’s not to say that people being goofy geese 🦆 is the only reason behind that confusion. 

There’s a fact that these diagnosis frequently occur together. 

So, let’s look at how that soup comes out then, shall we? 

[Comorbidity]ADHD and Autism: Examining Comorbidity

Now, let's talk about the comorbidity between ADHD and Autism. Studies suggest that about 30% to 50% of individuals with ADHD also have symptoms of autism and vice versa1.

So, what does this comorbidity mean for individuals with ADHD and Autism? Well, the same study suggests that the mix of the two makes for a complicated cocktail that can make life even harder. 

Increased Severity of Symptoms

When both ADHD and Autism are present, the symptoms can be more severe. 

Symptoms of ADHD, such as impulsivity and inattention, can exacerbate the social communication challenges and sensory sensitivities often associated with Autism. This amplification of symptoms can make daily functioning more challenging and require more robust coping strategies.

Complex Treatment Needs

Managing ADHD and Autism requires a more tailored and comprehensive treatment approach because each condition has unique therapeutic needs.

For instance, you can manage ADHD with medication and behavioral therapy to improve focus and reduce impulsivity. 

In contrast, Autism might require interventions like speech therapy or social skills training to enhance communication and social interaction. 

All things considered, managing each condition independently is a tough racket. And now, consider that the two don’t exist independently but bounce off each other. 


Greater Impact on Daily Life

For example, the inattention and impulsivity associated with ADHD can impact academic performance, while the social communication challenges of Autism can make social relationships more difficult. 

Both conditions can affect an individual's ability to manage daily tasks and routines, leading to increased challenges in both personal and professional life. That means individuals may need to employ a wider range of strategies and accommodations to navigate these challenges successfully.

But here's the thing to remember. While ADHD and Autism can present challenges, it doesn't define the person. Individuals with both conditions can thrive and lead fulfilling lives with the right support, understanding, and interventions. It's not about "fixing" or "curing" them; it's about celebrating their uniqueness and helping them navigate the world in their way.

[Different strategies]Managing and Treating ADHD and Autism: Different Approaches for Different Journeys

There’s a lot of ground to cover when it comes to the treatment of either condition…which is why we are not going to do that today 🥴

Sorry to kick the wind out of your sails, but it’s not a topic that should be taken lightly, so all I can give you are general pointers in the direction of the solution. 

For ADHD, treatment often includes a combination of medication, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes. It's about finding strategies to manage the whirlwind, whether through medication to help with focus, therapy to develop organizational skills, or exercise to burn off some excess energy.

Many issues caused by ADHD have to do with dopamine reward pathways2 and how ADHDers’ brains tend to be less stimulated by default than those of neurotypicals. Figuring out how to “trick” your brain to increase dopamine - whether through medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination - is a go-to solution for ADHD management. 

For ASD, as of the time of writing, there isn’t such thing as a “cure.” I don’t believe that ASD needs to be cured; I am talking more about the pharmaceutical treatments that can alleviate severe symptoms. And right now, such medications are in the testing stages, and their effectiveness is still under scrutiny3

So the treatments then focus on improving social communication and managing repetitive behaviors. More or less, it’s about dealing with symptoms rather than root causes. That might include speech therapy, social skills training, or therapeutic interventions. 

And for those with both conditions… it’s complicated. You should know that until recently, official diagnostic manuals, such as DSM-5, didn’t even allow simultaneous diagnosis of an individual with ADHD and ASD4

So while this was thankfully amended in the recent changes, it takes a while for the practitioners to catch up with the shifting trends. 

In practice, managing both conditions requires specific finesse and a capable practitioner with experience with such cases. 

[Common strategies]Shared Experiences: Navigating ADHD (and ASD) Together

So much like in our past feature about body doubling and ADHD, we have to contend that science is playing a bit of a catch-up with the living experiences of people with ADHD, ASD, or even a combination of both.

That’s not me dissing science, mind! It’s a field with many hoops to jump through before you can confidently say something. But that isn’t much of a comfort for people who now need a solution, is it? 

That’s where the community can help. Like-minded people walking the same path can sometimes be a treasure trove of useful info and lifehacks because they’ve experienced what you do! 

Granted, sometimes, it can be just a bunch of healing crystals and aura analysis nonsense…but hey, at least you have someone to share your woes with, eh?

I kid, of course, but I can’t deny how nice it feels to have a group of people who feel and understand the things like you do

And that’s why, to help more experience that feeling, we’ve decided to create Numo. 

Numo: A Lifeline in the Chaos

Think of it as a lifeline in the chaos, a space designed for individuals with ADHD to connect, share, and learn from one another. 

At Numo, you'll find a community of people who get it, who understand the whirlwind of ADHD and the unique challenges and strengths that come with it. It's a place to share strategies, celebrate victories, and support each other through challenges.

But it's more than “just a community.”  It's a resource and toolbox filled with strategies, tips, and insights tailored to the ADHD journey:

  • ADHD Planner: This isn't just any planner; it's your task-taming champion. With each ticked-off task, you're not just getting things done. You're winning the day!
  • Noise Generator: Our noise generator is here to save the day when the loud is too loud or quiet is too quiet! Did you know that noise generators are beneficial for ADHD?  Dive into the world of tha noise and discover your perfect productivity “soundtrack”.
  • Squads and tribes: Ever wanted a space where everyone gets it? Our community groups are just that. A place to connect, ask questions, share experiences, and yes, even brag about that task you finally ticked off!
  • Knowledge Repository: We've got a buffet of wisdom and tips waiting for you. Because when it comes to navigating ADHD, the more you know, the smoother the journey. So come on in and feast on knowledge!

[Takeaways]Key Takeaways from Our Journey

  • Understanding ADHD: We learned that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by persistent inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity patterns. It's not just about being hyperactive or having a short attention span, and it's certainly not a result of bad parenting or laziness.
  • Understanding Autism: Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior. It's not a disease to be cured, but a different way of experiencing the world.
  • Distinguishing ADHD from Autism: We found out that while ADHD and Autism share some common ground, they also have distinct symptoms that set them apart. 
  • The Phenomenon of Comorbidity: We delved into the concept of comorbidity and learned that it's common for individuals to be diagnosed with ADHD and Autism. This can present additional challenges but also unique perspectives and strengths.
  • The Power of Connection and Community: We explored the value of shared experiences and community in navigating ADHD and introduced Numo as a space for individuals with ADHD to connect, share strategies, and learn from one another.

Understanding the Differences: The Key to Support and Acceptance

Understanding the differences between ADHD and Autism is key to providing the right support, interventions, and acceptance for individuals with ADHD and Autism. It's about celebrating their uniqueness, acknowledging their strengths, and helping them navigate their journey.

We've come to the end of our journey, but the learning doesn't stop here. Whether you're living with ADHD, Autism, or both, remember: you're not alone, you're understood, and you're part of a community. And with understanding, support, and resources like Numo, you can navigate your journey and truly thrive. Until next time, keep learning, growing, and being you!

Science soursces
1 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The Co-Occurrence of Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children – What Do We Know?
2 JAMA. Evaluating Dopamine Reward Pathway in ADHD 
3 Neurotherapeutics. An Update on Psychopharmacological Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder
4 Children (Basel). DSM-5 Changes in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Implications for Comorbid Sleep Issues
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