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What’s the difference between a level 1 child with autism and a child with ADHD?

ADHD vs. autism: What's the difference?

Updated: August 29, 2023 · 1 Minute Read

Melanie Hsu, Ph.D.

Reviewed by:

Melanie Hsu, Ph.D.


  • There are many overlaps between autism and ADHD because they are both neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Social-emotional reciprocity (SER) is the ability to interact socially with people.
  • A child with ADHD, once regulated, has a grasp on social interactions, whereas an autistic child will still struggle with social-emotional reciprocity even when well regulated.

What’s the difference between ADHD and being on the autism spectrum at level 1? 

Even though individuals with ADHD sometimes have more social maturity and difficulty with always attending to what's going on for the other person, once you have their attention and once they are regulated (so they're not hyperactive or being impulsive), their social understanding is intact. Whereas with autism, even once regulated and even when you have their attention, that social understanding is more difficult. So that's why we say the hallmark of autism spectrum disorder is social-emotional reciprocity. 


We often think of autism as in some ways “the disorder of last resort.” Is there something else that might be getting in the person's way that is causing them to have that social disconnect? With ADHD, it's because you're not paying attention enough or you're paying attention to the wrong thing. Or that you're dysregulated and so that you're not able to be present. But once you regulate yourself and you're paying attention, that social understanding exists.



Beaming Health’s co-founder Marissa Pittard sat down with autism expert Melanie Hsu, Ph.D. to talk about the science behind autism and the therapies that can help children thrive. They answered common questions about autism and chatted live with parents. In this clip, Dr. Hsu discusses the relationship between ADHD and ASD. Dr. Hsu explains the similarities and differences between these two diagnoses. 



This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can find the full video conversation in the Beaming community.


ADHD is also a neurodevelopmental disorder and there are a lot of overlaps between autism and ADHD.

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