Can you have ADHD and not autism?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are two common neurodevelopmental disorders that often occur together. Both conditions affect behavior, social interaction, and executive functioning. However, they have distinct diagnostic criteria and manifestations. This raises an important question: is it possible to have ADHD without autism?

Quick Answers

– Yes, it is possible to have ADHD without autism. Many people meet diagnostic criteria for ADHD but not ASD.

– ADHD and ASD have overlapping symptoms but are considered separate conditions with different core deficits.

– ADHD is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Autism is characterized by social communication deficits and restricted, repetitive behaviors.

– Individuals with ADHD but not autism tend to have less severe difficulties with social interaction and communication.

– Diagnosing both ADHD and autism requires meeting full criteria for both conditions separately. Around 30-80% of people with ADHD may also have autism.

Core Symptoms of ADHD vs. Autism

ADHD and autism share some similar symptoms, but have distinct diagnostic criteria and clinical presentations.

Core Symptoms of ADHD

The key characteristics of ADHD are:

– Inattention – Difficulty sustaining focus, losing things, forgetfulness, distractedness.

– Hyperactivity – Excessive movement, fidgeting, restlessness, trouble sitting still.

– Impulsivity – Hasty actions without forethought, poor self-control, frequent interruptions.

Core Symptoms of Autism

The core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:

– Social communication deficits – Difficulty with social interaction, poor nonverbal communication, lack of eye contact.

– Restricted interests – Intense focus or inflexible adherence to specific interests or routines.

– Repetitive behaviors – Repetitive motor movements like hand flapping, insistence on sameness.

Key Differences Between ADHD and Autism

While ADHD and autism may appear similar at first glance, there are key differences:

Social Communication

– Autism is characterized by inherent challenges with social communication and interaction. People with autism have difficulty picking up on social cues, engaging reciprocally in conversation, and developing peer relationships.

– With ADHD alone, social difficulties are typically less pervasive. Children with ADHD may be inattentive during social interactions, interrupt frequently, or be overly talkative, but their underlying social motivation and comprehension are intact.

Restricted & Repetitive Behaviors

– Autism includes restricted interests or repetitive behaviors like arm flapping, rocking, or strictly following familiar routines.

– People with solely ADHD do not exhibit these patterns of restricted, repetitive behavior to the extent required for an autism diagnosis.

Executive Functioning

– Individuals with ADHD struggle with executive functions like working memory, organization, planning, time management and impulse control. This leads to distractibility and disorganization.

– In autism, executive dysfunction manifests in cognitive inflexibility or difficulty switching tasks. People with autism tend to perseverate on thoughts or behaviors.

Sensory Issues

– Sensory sensitivities like heightened sensitivity to sound or touch are common in autism. People with autism may seek sensory stimulation.

– ADHD alone does not directly cause sensory processing issues, although these can sometimes emerge as a result of ADHD symptoms.

Gender Ratio

– Autism is 4 times more common in males than females.

– ADHD has a more even gender ratio, though boys are still more commonly diagnosed than girls.

Assessing ADHD Without Autism

Determining whether an individual has ADHD without autism requires a comprehensive diagnostic assessment by a qualified mental health professional. They will:

– Take a detailed history of development, symptoms, social functioning, etc.

– Screen for the core symptoms of ASD like social communication challenges.

– Evaluate the type and severity of repetitive behaviors, if any.

– Assess cognitive flexibility and sensory reactivity issues.

– Administer psychoeducational testing for IQ, neuropsychological deficits, etc.

– Rule out a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

– Determine if full diagnostic criteria are met for ADHD based on symptom duration, early onset, and impairment.

– Assess for other mental health conditions that may overlap with ADHD.

Meeting criteria for ADHD while not qualifying for an autism diagnosis confirms that an individual has ADHD without autism.

ADHD With Mild Autistic Traits

It’s possible for people with ADHD to have some mild characteristics of autism without fully crossing the diagnostic threshold.

For example, they may:

– Have social difficulties related to ADHD symptoms like impulsivity.

– Display focused interests tied to attentional hyperfocus.

– Exhibit minor motor stereotypies when bored or understimulated.

– Have limited autistic traits that don’t substantially impair everyday functioning.

But these mild autistic-like features would not completely fulfill the criteria for an autism diagnosis. The social and communication deficits and repetitive/restricted behaviors required for an ASD diagnosis would not be present.

Diagnosing Comorbid ADHD and Autism

When full diagnostic criteria are met for both ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, a dual diagnosis is warranted.

Studies estimate around 30-80% of people with ADHD also have comorbid autism. Diagnosing both conditions requires:

– Meeting full symptom thresholds for ADHD including onset before age 12.

– Qualifying for autism diagnosis based on current DSM criteria.

– Assessing severity of deficits in social communication and interaction.

– Documenting presence of restricted/repetitive behaviors.

– Determining how symptoms overlap and whether impairments exceed those expected for either disorder alone.

– Identifying whether autism or ADHD symptoms appear more foundational.

Receiving a dual diagnosis facilitates access to support services targeting needs related to both ADHD and autism.

ADHD With High Autistic Traits

In some complex cases, individuals may fall just below the diagnostic threshold for autism but still have very elevated autistic traits.

Some signs of ADHD with high autistic traits include:

– Significant but subclinical social and communication challenges – e.g. conversational difficulties, problems grasping social subtleties or nonverbal cues. Difficulty making eye contact.

– Notable repetitive behaviors or resistance to change – e.g. motor stereotypies, strict adherence to routines, intense circumscribed interests.

– More pronounced sensory issues – e.g. hypersensitivity to sound or touch.

– More gaps in cognitive flexibility or perspective taking skills.

– Higher rates of learning disabilities or intellectual giftedness/twice exceptionality.

These borderline traits can complicate the diagnostic picture. But a formal autism diagnosis would still not be warranted if criteria are not fully met.

Prevalence of ADHD Without Autism

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. It affects around 5% of children and 2.5% of adults. Autism impacts around 1% of the population.

Among people diagnosed with ADHD, studies indicate:

– Around 50-65% do not have autism.

– Approximately 30-50% may display subclinical autistic traits without meeting full ASD criteria.

– An estimated 30-80% qualify for a dual diagnosis of ADHD and autism when both conditions are thoroughly assessed.

So while comorbidity is common, many people have ADHD without autism. Their ADHD symptoms cannot be wholly accounted for by an autism diagnosis.

Pros and Cons of an ADHD Without Autism Diagnosis

There are some pros and cons associated with having ADHD without autism:


– Can access ADHD-specific treatment like stimulant medication, behavioral therapy, coaching, and accommodations at school or work.

– Don’t have to manage more complex autism-related social deficits and rigid behaviors.

– May be less likely to face the stigma sadly associated with autism spectrum disorder.

– Skills in areas like social awareness, flexibility and communication are areas of relative strength.


– Cannot access autism-specific support services and therapies.

– Social and sensory challenges associated with autism are not addressed or accommodated.

– Providers may underestimate any subclinical autistic traits present.

– Dual diagnosis provides more treatment options if ADHD is accompanied by elevated autistic traits.

Overall, an ADHD without autism diagnosis directs treatment priorities more specifically to core ADHD impairments like inattention and hyperactivity. But comorbid conditions need ongoing monitoring if autistic traits exist.

Treatment Implications

Treatment plans for ADHD may be similar with or without autism. But some key implications include:

– Psychostimulant medication and ADHD behavioral therapies remain frontline interventions.

– Less emphasis may be placed on addressing social skills or restrictive/repetitive behaviors.

– Providers should still be mindful of social challenges, sensory issues or obsessive interests that can benefit from intervention.

– Additional autism therapies like social skills training may not be warranted without that full diagnosis.

– Academic and workplace accommodations focus more exclusively on executive functioning deficits resulting from ADHD.

– Individuals with high autistic traits will likely need more support in areas like social functioning and sensory regulation even if threshold for autism diagnosis is not met.

Overall, ADHD treatment without autism places priority on core symptoms like inattention, distractibility, disorganization and hyperactivity. Social, sensory and behavioral gaps associated with autism will not be as pronounced or require significant intervention without meeting that diagnostic threshold.

Causes of ADHD Without Autism

ADHD and autism have some overlapping causes but the precise etiologies behind each diagnosis differ in important ways.

Genetic Factors

– Both conditions are highly heritable and linked to genetic mutations or variants that affect neurodevelopment.

– But autism has been more firmly tied to de novo genetic mutations, rare variants and chromosomal abnormalities.

– The genetic architecture underlying idiopathic ADHD is more complex, without clearly identifiable genetic markers.


– Structural and functional brain imaging studies reveal divergent patterns associated with ADHD vs. autism, suggesting distinct neural substrates.

– ADHD is linked to catecholamine dysregulation, especially in frontostriatal networks governing executive functions like selective attention and behavior inhibition.

– In autism, abnormalities are more prominent in networks like the mirror neuron system involved in social cognition, communication and motor skills.

Environmental Risk Factors

– Environmental influences like parental age, fetal exposures, infections, or toxins may play a larger role in autism compared to ADHD.

– Premature birth, low birth weight and prenatal smoking are more strongly tied to ADHD.

Chemical Influences

– The dopamine and noradrenaline imbalances underlying ADHD do not have the same chemical profile as the excitatory/inhibitory neurotransmitter disturbances linked to autism.

In summary, while brain development is affected in both ADHD and autism, they stem from differing genetic, neurobiological and environmental influences in many cases. This helps explain why ADHD can manifest independently without autism.

Case Examples

Below are some hypothetical cases illustrating what ADHD without autism commonly looks like:

Case 1: Classic ADHD

John is an 8 year old boy who exhibits developmentally inappropriate levels of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. He is restless and fidgety, has trouble remaining seated, talks excessively, blurts out answers before questions are finished, and has difficulty sustaining attention.

However, John displays typical social communication abilities. He has good eye contact, shows imaginative play with peers, and does not exhibit repetitive behaviors or restrictive interests characteristic of autism.

While an autism screening was completed, John did not meet criteria for ASD based on direct assessment. His social and behavioral challenges are better explained by ADHD alone.

Case 2: ADHD with mild autistic traits

Jasmine is a 7 year old girl presenting with an 18-month history of severe inattention, forgetfulness, distractibility, disorganization and hyperactivity consistent with ADHD. She has mild difficulties interacting with peers and occasionally gets overly focused on certain interests.

Upon evaluation, Jasmine fell well short of a diagnosis of autism. She did not show impairments in social reciprocity or nonverbal communication, nor did she exhibit true restricted or repetitive behaviors. Her social struggles stemmed mainly from ADHD-related impulsiveness and hyperactivity. While Jasmine has minor autistic features, they are below clinical thresholds for ASD.

Case 3: ADHD with high autistic traits

Jackson is a 13 year old boy with extreme distractibility, disorganization, forgetfulness and signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity. He has limited friendships and conversational skills are weak. Jackson also collects unusual objects related to his intense focus on insects. His need for rigid routines and sensory sensitivities are notable.

Comprehensive neuropsychological testing yielded a diagnosis of ADHD. Jackson narrowly missed the cutoff for autism diagnosis, with notable but subthreshold deficits in social interaction and restricted interests. He exhibits prominent features of autism without fully meeting formal criteria. Targeted ADHD treatment was recommended along with ongoing monitoring of autistic traits.


In summary, although ADHD and autism spectrum disorder share overlapping features, many individuals clearly meet diagnostic criteria for ADHD without autism. They exhibit the core symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that define ADHD, without the social communication deficits and restrictive/repetitive behaviors required for an autism diagnosis.

Determining whether stand-alone ADHD is present requires a nuanced diagnostic assessment by an experienced clinician. They must rule out autism spectrum disorder, while also noting any elevated autistic traits that may complicate the clinical picture and require monitoring during ADHD treatment. But when full criteria are not met for ASD – even if some traits are present – a diagnosis of ADHD without autism is appropriate and guides more targeted treatment planning.

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