Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and Asperger's syndrome are all neurodevelopmental disorders. But there are very important — and in some cases, dramatic — distinctions between the three conditions. A proper diagnosis is crucial because it can have a significant effect on a person’s development and function, beginning in childhood and continuing throughout their entire life.
ADHD is more prevalent than autism spectrum disorder (ASD, which includes autism and Asperger’s), affecting 9 percent of children ages 4 to 17 as well as 4 percent of adults, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). By comparison, ASD affects 1 to 2 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Understanding the terminology: ADD, ADHD, ASD, autism and Asperger’s
ADHD: ADHD, which was sometimes called attention deficit disorder (ADD), is characterized by hyperactivity and impulsivity. While most children demonstrate some of the behaviors associated with ADHD at times, those with ADHD have six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And for a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, their symptoms must cause problems in more than two settings (such as home, school and church) and manifest before age 12. ADHD is not an ASD.
Autism: Autism, or ASD, is a condition that develops during childhood and adversely affects a person’s communicative and socializing skills. Those with ASD demonstrate limitations with or repetition of certain behaviors, hobbies or activities. The “spectrum” refers to how much the symptoms and behaviors of ASD vary from person to person, according to NAMI. Some people are barely affected by the symptoms while others are gravely affected to the point of disability. According to the CDC, 1 of every 59 8-year-old children in the United States has ASD. Boys are far more likely than girls to develop it. The disorder is indiscriminate, affecting all demographic and socioeconomic groups.
Asperger’s: Asperger's syndrome, sometimes referred to as Asperger’s, is no longer used as a separate diagnosis, according to Autism Speaks. It is now under a larger diagnosis of ASD, as it is characterized by similar behaviors and struggles. With Asperger’s, people can face challenges relating to social situations and deviation from routine, but often have strong language skills and intellectual ability. Asperger’s was first included in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA's) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994 as a disorder distinct from autism. However, in its 2013 update to the DSM, the association included Asperger’s as a form of ASD.
What they share in common and how they differ
Like ASD, ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Unlike ASD, however, ADHD is not a spectrum disorder. While those affected by ADHD do exhibit symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, they do not face the intellectual and language challenges faced by those with autism or the communicative and socializing challenges faced by people with autism and Asperger’s.
Within the ASD spectrum, there are many distinctions between the disorders. Symptoms of Asperger’s are less severe than the symptoms of autism.
People with autism can seem distant and uninterested in communicating with others. In contrast, those with Asperger’s typically have a desire to fit in and communicate with peers, but can struggle to do so, according to the Autism Society. They can come across as socially awkward, have trouble understanding social norms and demonstrate a lack of empathy. In some cases, those with Asperger’s may avoid eye contact, appear unengaged in conversation and struggle to understand verbal or physical cues.
A significant difference between Asperger’s and autism is that people with Asperger’s do not have a delay in speech. They do not face the degree of difficulty with language, and communication in general, experienced by those with autism. In fact, children with Asperger’s often have good language skills — they just utilize language differently. For example, their patterns of speech may seem unconventional, lack inflection or have a different cadence.
Cognitive ability is another area where autism and Asperger’s differ. Unlike people with autism, those with Asperger’s do not experience cognitive delays that are considered to be clinically significant. Some people with Asperger’s have higher-than-average intelligence.
Diagnosing ADHD, Asperger’s and autism
Determining whether a child has a neurodevelopmental disorder — and if so, which disorder — requires a methodical process.
The following steps are taken when diagnosing ADHD, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
- Identify symptoms and behaviors that take place in a child’s natural settings, like home and school
- Eliminate other potential causes of the symptoms
- Identify other conditions that may be affecting the child along with the main symptoms
Based on the groups of symptoms that a child shows, the doctor will diagnose the type of ADHD. There are four main types:
- Combined ADHD, which includes inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. People with combined ADHD show signs of all three. Combined is the most common type of ADHD.
- Primarily hyperactive/impulsive ADHD
- Primarily inattentive ADHD (previously called ADD)
- Other ADHD
Diagnosing autism is more complicated than diagnosing ADHD. This is because, initially, children with autism can appear to have a mental disability, issues with vision and hearing or sensory processing problems.
An early and correct autism diagnosis is extremely important and helpful for the child because it will serve as the foundation for an effective treatment program.
A medical diagnosis of autism is made by a doctor after a careful evaluation of symptoms and diagnostic tests, notes the Autism Society. To make a diagnosis of autism, doctors typically rely on the APA’s DSM. Typically, more than one appointment is needed to properly assess a child’s cognitive ability and behavior. A thorough diagnosis will also rely on insight from family, teachers and other people who regularly interact with the person being diagnosed.
Some parents may seek an evaluation of their child in their school setting, which is different from a medical diagnosis. For an educational evaluation, a determination is usually made by a team of professionals, and the goal is to figure out whether the child would benefit from special education.
While diagnoses of Asperger’s have proliferated in recent years, it is unclear whether this means that the disorder is becoming more common or if medical professionals have become more adept at diagnosing it, the Autism Society says. Prior to the APA’s decision to include Asperger’s in the ASD spectrum, the same symptoms were listed for both of the disorders, despite the fact that people with Asperger’s do not show delays in the development of language skills.
In fact, a person must have both normal language development and normal intelligence to be diagnosed with Asperger’s. The latest requirements for a diagnosis of Asperger’s include severe and ongoing issues with social interaction as well as limited and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests and activities that lead to clinically significant deficiency in social or employment situations.
If you suspect that your child or someone you know may have Asperger’s or another neurodevelopmental disorder, the first step is to arrange for an initial assessment of their behavior and developmental history by a qualified medical professional. An early diagnosis is important — children diagnosed early have a better chance of success in many aspects of life.
- Cleveland Clinic, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Diagnosis and Tests - https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4784-attention-deficithyperactivity-disorder-adhd/diagnosis-and-tests
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, Autism - https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/autism
- National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/autism-spectrum-disorder-asd.shtml
- Autism Speaks, What Is Asperger Syndrome? - https://www.autismspeaks.org/types-autism-what-asperger-syndrome
- Autism Society, Diagnosis - https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/diagnosis/
- Autism Society, Asperger’s Syndrome - https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/aspergers-syndrome/
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, ADHD - https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/ADHD
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Autism Spectrum Disorder: Data and Statistics - https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
What is the difference between ADHD autism and Aspergers? ›
In a nutshell, autistic people have difficulty understanding or responding to social norms and cues. A person may become overly interested in a topic or object. On the other hand, people with ADHD have underlying difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and may have problems with impulsivity.What medication is used for Aspergers and ADHD? ›
The most commonly prescribed medications are methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Quillivant), amphetamine (Adderall, Dexedrine, Vyvanse, Dyanavel), atomoxetine (Strattera), and guanfacine (Intuniv, Tenex).Can Aspergers be confused with ADHD? ›
Asperger's and ADHD are two conditions that are often confused because they have some overlap in symptoms such as social difficulties and impulsiveness. Additionally, it's common for people to have both conditions.Is ADHD a disability or coping mechanism? ›
ADHD is a protected disability under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).How do I know if it's ADHD or autism? ›
Children with ADHD often have difficulty paying attention to the same thing for too long, and they may get distracted easily. Autistic children may have a limited scope of interest. They may seem to obsess over things that they enjoy and have difficulty focusing on things that they have no interest in.Can ADHD be mistaken for autism? ›
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism can look a lot alike. Children with either one can be very active and impulsive, and can have trouble focusing and interacting with other people. In fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.Does Adderall work for Aspergers? ›
Interestingly, a sizeable portion of children with Asperger's Disorder (and an even greater number of children with more severe PDD) do not have a favorable response to stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate) or to amphetamines alone or in mixture (Dexedrine, Adderall).Can you treat autism with Adderall? ›
There is no medicine for autism specifically. But there is medicine that treats symptoms typically associated with autism, such as anxiety, hyperactivity, and aggression. This can include a range of medications, such as antipsychotics like Risperdal or stimulants like Adderall.What is the best treatment for Asperger's? ›
Many of the treatments that are recommended for Asperger's involve fostering improved behavioral, social, and communication skills. However, medications, speech therapy, and occupational therapy may also be used. It's important to remember that not all treatments for Asperger's are supported by scientific evidence.What is the most distinguishing symptom of Aspergers? ›
Unlike people with autism, people with Asperger's syndrome retain their early language skills. Perhaps the most distinguishing symptom of Asperger's syndrome is a child's obsessive interest in a particular object or topic to the point of exclusion of any other.
Do Aspergers have trouble focusing? ›
Focusing on one thing for a long time is hard for them. On the other hand, people with Asperger's tend to focus on only one activity at a time, and they focus on that activity intensely with little regard for anything else going on around them. They are hyper-focused rather than unfocused.What can be misdiagnosed as Aspergers? ›
- Avoidant personality disorder.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Reactive attachment disorder.
- Social (pragmatic) communication disorder.
- Schizophrenia, which rarely happens in children.
Having attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) is not an automatic qualification for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but a documented diagnosis can be helpful if the condition and the impairments are severe enough. ADHD is included in the category of Listed Impairments, under the SSI guidelines.Can you get Social Security for ADHD? ›
The Social Security Administration is not as concerned with a diagnosis of ADHD as they are how your condition affects your everyday functioning and ability to work. If you have ADHD and are unable to work because of your mental condition, you are likely entitled to benefits.Is ADHD caused by parental stress? ›
Parental stress was positively correlated with children ADHD severity, conduct, and emotional problems and with mothers' perceptions of ADHD impact on marriage and social life, and negatively correlated with mothers' perceptions of social support. A similar pattern of correlations was observed for child ADHD severity.What does ADHD autism Look Like? ›
Hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder and ADHD often overlap. Many autistic children also have symptoms of ADHD — difficulty settling down, social awkwardness, only focusing only on things of interest to them, and impulsivity.How does ADHD medication affect autism? ›
Stimulants don't change the core characteristics of autism.
But some evidence suggests that stimulants can help autistic children with ADHD pay attention and behave less impulsively. In turn, this can help them at school and in social situations.
- ADHD, combined type. This, the most common type of ADHD, is characterized by impulsive and hyperactive behaviors as well as inattention and distractibility.
- ADHD, impulsive/hyperactive type. ...
- ADHD, inattentive and distractible type.
Currently, there is no medication that can cure autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or all of its symptoms. But some medications can help treat certain symptoms associated with ASD, especially certain behaviors.Can ADHD be caused by trauma? ›
Trauma and traumatic stress, according to a growing body of research, are closely associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). Trauma and adversity can alter the brain's architecture, especially in children, which may partly explain their link to the development of ADHD.
What is high functioning autism? ›
“High-functioning autism” isn't an official medical term or diagnosis. It's an informal one some people use when they talk about people with an autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills like eating and getting dressed. They can live independently.What is the best stimulant for autism? ›
Stimulant autism medication
Stimulants are a class of medication most frequently given to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The most commonly prescribed stimulant for children with ASD and most well-studied is Ritalin (methylphenidate).
Risperidone is an antipsychotic and mood stabilizer medication and is also used for treatment of irritability of autism and tic disorders.
Lithium is another option for children and adolescents with ASD who present with symptoms of a mood disorder, such as elevated moods/euphoria, mania, and paranoia, whether accompanied or not by irritability.Can you take ADHD medication for autism? ›
With or without autism, ADHD requires comprehensive, multi-disciplinary care that usually includes, at minimum, both behavioral and educational interventions. As part of this broad approach, ADHD medication can be life-changing for some children.What is the best medication for autism anxiety? ›
The SSRIs most commonly prescribed to autistic people are fluoxetine and sertraline. Sertraline is often the top choice because its side effects are milder than those of other SSRIs and because it has fewer interactions with other drugs.Which treatment is best for autism? ›
Behavioral approaches have the most evidence for treating symptoms of ASD. They have become widely accepted among educators and healthcare professionals and are used in many schools and treatment clinics. A notable behavioral treatment for people with ASD is called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).What is the best diet for Asperger's? ›
A gluten-free, casein free diet is recommended for Aspergers kids – and adults. Often moms and dads feel rather overwhelmed with such a restrictive diet, and only opt to embrace it as a last resort. Results vary when using a gluten-free, casein free diet – but the keyword here is RESULT.What kind of doctor can diagnose Aspergers? ›
A psychiatrist can help with the examination and diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. Getting diagnosed can help children and adults receive needed therapies and services, leading individuals with Asperger's to reach their fullest potential.Is Asperger's hereditary? ›
The cause of Asperger syndrome, like most ASDs, is not fully understood, but there is a strong genetic basis, which means it does tend to run in families. Multiple environmental factors are also thought to play an important role in the development of all ASDs.
Do stimulants work for Aspergers? ›
Typically, if someone begins taking stimulant medication for ADHD and he or she actually has Asperger's syndrome, there will be less than ideal results. A common result is that the medication may work for three or four months and then cease to be effective.Do stimulants help Aspergers? ›
Stimulants can improve a teen's autism symptoms by 80% when administered in the correct dosages. They substantially improve core autism symptoms that can affect concentration, help complete tasks on time, and curb impulsive behavior.What is the best antidepressant for Asperger's? ›
The SSRIs most commonly prescribed to autistic people are fluoxetine and sertraline. Sertraline is often the top choice because its side effects are milder than those of other SSRIs and because it has fewer interactions with other drugs.How to deal with a child with Asperger's and ADHD? ›
- Teach practical social skills.
- Work on your child's problem solving skills.
- Teach your child to be self-aware.
- Encourage your child to develop socially appropriate behavior.
- Help your child develop a routine.