“Could I Be Autistic, Too?” Signs of Autism in Women with ADHD (2023)

ADHD is traditionally thought of as a little boy’s disorder, and doctors are less likely to pick up on inattentive-type symptoms that don’t overtly disrupt a classroom or home. For these reasons and many more, it can be challenging to receive an accurate ADHD diagnosis as a female.

It’s equally challenging for an autistic woman to be officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Why? The reasons are similar: Women are socialized to mask their autistic traits, and even when they don’t succeed in hiding the signs, autism is perceived by many as an exclusively male condition. The older an autistic woman gets without a formal diagnosis, the more likely clinicians are to be skeptical when she seeks an autism evaluation. These women often hear, as I once did, that they seem “too normal” or have had too much success to be autistic.

These sentiments are borne out of misinformation, which can affect the most qualified psychologists and scientists when it comes to women on the spectrum. The presentation of autism in adult women varies greatly from that of the young boys clinicians typically see. And since the current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria are based on studies of mostly boys and men, it is common for women with the same neurological variations to slip through the cracks.

Autism and ADHD in Women: Overview

ADHD vs. Autism: Similarities and Differences

Autistic women and women with ADHD can share the following traits:

  • executive functioning challenges
  • sensory processing differences
  • social difficulty
  • higher rates of learning disorders and comorbid conditions
  • “stimming,” which refers to movements, or occasionally noises, that a person makes in order to soothe their nervous system. These often-repetitive actions self-stimulate the senses in a predictable way, and many people who stim do so instinctively or subconsciously to manage stress.

[Take This Self-Test: Autism in Adults]

(Video) Could I Have ADHD And Autism?

ADHD is diagnosed when a patient has symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity. For an ASD diagnosis, however, the patient must have clinically significant difficulty with social interaction or communication, and unusually restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. In fact, many autistic people have a “special interest” — a topic or subject that they are heavily invested in and are more knowledgeable about than most.

Autistic individuals are also more likely to have sensory processing disorder, discomfort making/maintaining eye contact, and hyper-logical methods of thinking, with a tendency to be extremely literal.

How Do I Know if I’m Autistic?

If you are an adult female and suspect you may be on the autism spectrum, you are not alone. it’s important to evaluate your behaviors in light of your other diagnoses. For example, if you already have an ADHD diagnosis, your executive functioning difficulties can be attributed to that diagnosis. Thus, determining whether you could be autistic as well requires a closer look at behaviors related to social communication, need for routine, sensory differences, and logical/literal thinking.

Autism traits may also be masked to some degree by your gender socialization, as many women typically learn to hide autistic traits that would otherwise prompt a diagnostic evaluation.

[Read: What Does Autism Spectrum Disorder Look Like in Adults?]

Take social camouflaging – or when someone on the spectrum intentionally or unintentionally mimics other people’s social behaviors to cover up their autism traits. Autistic people often use this coping strategy after experiencing negative social interactions (making the camouflage a reaction, not an instinct). Social camouflage is distinct from the traditional development of social skills because the individual has no intuitive understanding of why the social norm exists.

(Video) Attention Regulation: The Difference Between ADHD and Autism (Explaining The Neurodiversity Rainbow)

Autism in Women: Diagnostic Considerations

If you are seeking a diagnosis, prepare yourself to face skepticism — possibly even from your clinician. Unfortunately, anyone without a nuanced understanding of the spectrum may be doubtful of a seemingly “normal” adult female requesting an evaluation.

That’s why it is essential to work with clinicians who have experience diagnosing autism in adults. It is especially helpful if they have knowledge of any existing diagnoses, like ADHD, and have previously evaluated or counseled other women. While the research on autism in women is sparse, first-hand experience can equip these clinicians to accurately assess the possibility of autism.

The good news is that experienced, knowledgeable psychologists and psychiatrists do exist, and one of those individuals will take your concerns and questions seriously. The clinician will likely evaluate you using a combination of diagnostic surveys and interviews with you and someone who knew you as a child. Generally, this is a parent, but it could be any person who observed you consistently before age four or five. After your doctor gathers this information, it will inform your diagnosis.

You can decide to be evaluated at any point in your life. Receiving my diagnosis, at age 19, improved my relationships with family and friends. I didn’t become a different person, but afterward I could articulate my ways of thinking and perception.

Autism in Women: Accommodations and Treatment

There is no universally prescribed medication for people on the autism spectrum. Prescription treatments more often address a comorbid condition, such as anxiety, mood disorders, ADHD, or seizures.

However, almost all autistic people are encouraged to try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This talk-based counseling can help autistic adults identify and process the ways they experience the world differently. A therapist can help an autistic patient develop an understanding of social rules or learn how to advocate for themselves in a work setting.

(Video) Autism in Females Maya’s Story

It is important to note that an adult with autism can determine which new skills they want to learn and which personal differences they want to keep or change. By contrast, many young children placed in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy are trained to behave “less autistic” while still too young to parse out how being on the spectrum affects their sense of self.

Accommodations for people with autism include creating sensory-friendly spaces, establishing clearly defined social rules, and holding neurodiversity-based autism education in the community. In a work-place, there might be the provision of a job mentor or the flexibility to work from home.

Autism in Women: Dispelling Myths

The medical establishment has been slow to develop an accurate profile of autism in women with low support needs. (Instead of calling an autistic person “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” it is more accurate and respectful to describe them as having high, medium, or low support needs. Someone with high support needs likely requires very frequent assistance completing everyday tasks and is unlikely to be able to live independently. Someone with low support needs — what was once called Asperger’s syndrome — likely requires fewer accommodations.)

Though our knowledge of autism, especially in women, is increasing, it has been slow to make its way into the mainstream. It’s why common myths like the following persist, and why we must work to raise awareness:

1. Is ADHD on the autism spectrum? No. there is a clear distinction between the two. ADHD and autism are separate neurological differences that can both exist in the same person. Scientists have suggested that the two conditions have a biological connection, which causes a high rate of comorbidity.

2. Autistic people feel little or no empathy. This is categorically untrue. Some autistic people report feeling their emotions more intensely than most. This stereotype seems more connected to the social nuance used to convey emotion/empathy than to the actual experience of it.

(Video) Having Autism & ADHD (The Paradox)

3. You can immediately tell if someone is autistic. There is no way to know whether someone is autistic just by looking at — or talking to — them. Still, many people can’t accept the fact that someone who isn’t obviously disabled could be on the spectrum. In fact, I often hear people say to me, “You don’t look autistic!”

4. People who are extroverted can’t be on the autism spectrum. It’s easy to see why this myth has arisen, but it isn’t true! Someone can have difficulty with social communication and still enjoy interacting with other people. Being naturally extroverted does not preclude autism.

Even though we have a long way to go toward neurodiversity empowerment, I encourage potentially autistic women to explore the possibility. As our ranks grow, perhaps the world’s understanding of us will grow as well.

Autism in Women with ADHD: Next Steps

  • Free eBook: The Guide to Autism in Adults
  • Read:
  • Q&A: How Can I Get Evaluated for Autism as an Adult?

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(Video) Ask Evelyn Kung: How to Differentiate Autism with ADHD?

FAQs

How do I know if I have autism or ADHD? ›

Attention span

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 autism be mistaken for ADHD? ›

Symptoms of ADHD and autism

In the earliest stages, it's not unusual for ADHD and ASD to be mistaken for the other. Children with either condition may experience trouble communicating and focusing. Although they have some similarities, they're still two distinct conditions.

Can high functioning autism look like ADHD? ›

Yes, it's possible to have both conditions. It's common for children with an autism spectrum disorder to also have signs of ADHD. Also, some kids who've been diagnosed with ADHD may also have a history of autism, with symptoms like trouble with social skills or being extra sensitive to textures of clothes.

What are good coping mechanisms for ADHD? ›

10 Coping Mechanisms for Thriving With Adult ADHD
  • Make time for exercise every day. ...
  • Accept yourself and your limitations. ...
  • Find people that accept you. ...
  • Look for time in your day to unwind. ...
  • Create a system for prioritizing your day. ...
  • Use your own internal clock to your benefit. ...
  • Create deadlines for projects.
19 Aug 2018

What is ADHD stimming? ›

Self-stimulatory behavior, often called “stimming,” is when a child or adult repeats specific movements or sounds as a way to self-soothe or remain engaged in a situation, often referred to as “fidget to focus.” Many people assume that only individuals with autism engage in self-stimulatory behaviors.

What does autism look like in females? ›

finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own. seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to.

Can you have autistic traits and not be autistic? ›

No, there is no such thing as being a little autistic. Many people may show some characteristics of autism from time to time. This may include avoiding bright lights and noises, preferring to be alone and being rigid about rules.

What conditions can mimic autism? ›

Examples include:
  • Avoidant personality disorder.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Reactive attachment disorder.
  • Social (pragmatic) communication disorder.
  • Schizophrenia, which rarely happens in children.
18 Jan 2022

Is ADHD on the Aspergers Spectrum? ›

Asperger's and ADHD are both considered neurodevelopmental disorders, but ADHD does not fall under the autism spectrum. ADHD is far more common than Asperger's Syndrome, and according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), ADHD affects nine percent of children ages three through 17.

How many people with ADHD also have autism? ›

According to the scientific literature, 50 to 70% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also present with comorbid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What does severe ADHD look like? ›

Adults with ADHD may find it difficult to focus and prioritize, leading to missed deadlines and forgotten meetings or social plans. The inability to control impulses can range from impatience waiting in line or driving in traffic to mood swings and outbursts of anger.

Do people with ADHD Stim? ›

Stimming is a normal behavior for people with ADHD. It helps them focus and calm down. There are ways to manage stimming behaviors, and loved ones can provide support. If you see someone stimming stay, try to stay calm and be positive.

What are the signs of ADHD in female adults? ›

Symptoms and signs of ADHD in adult women can include:
  • Difficulty with time management.
  • Disorganization.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • History of anxiety and depression.
  • Difficulty with money management.
18 Mar 2021

Does caffeine help ADHD? ›

The most common treatment for ADHD is stimulant therapy. These drugs can improve your focus and attention span and help control impulsive behavior. The most widely used stimulant, and the most popular drug in the world, is caffeine. It's in coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, and other foods.

What do ADHD tics feel like? ›

ADHD tics can include eye blinking, shrugging, head twitching, and other sharp movements. They can also include noises like snorting, coughing, sniffing, or grunting. In many cases, people with tics don't even realize they're doing anything. In other cases, tics feel like an uncontrollable urge to do something.

Why do people with ADHD crave sugar? ›

Sugar and other high carb foods boost dopamine levels in the brain, leading us to crave them more often when dopamine levels are low. Since kids with ADHD have chronically low levels of dopamine, they are more likely than other kids to crave and eat sugary or carbohydrate-heavy foods.

What music helps with ADHD? ›

For some people with ADHD, fast-paced electronic music or heavy metal may work better for concentration than classical music.
...
Consider trying out some classical composers, such as:
  • Vivaldi.
  • Bach.
  • Handel.
  • Mozart.
30 Apr 2019

What is masking autism? ›

Masking is a word used to describe something seen in many children with ASD - when they learn, practice, and perform certain behaviours and suppress others in order to be more like the people around them.

What is borderline autism in adults? ›

Autistic adults might continue to struggle to manage their emotions. They may have sudden outbursts of anger or become withdrawn when overwhelmed. These emotional reactions, which are common in those with ASD, might be seen as neuroticism, borderline personality disorder, or another mental illness.

Why is it harder to diagnose autism in females? ›

Social factors make it harder to diagnose autism in girls and they may need to have more behavioral issues or cognitive disability than boys in order to be diagnosed. Girls with autism may score the same on indicators of friendship or empathy as boys, but not the same as typically-developing girls.

How do I know if I am autistic? ›

Main signs of autism
  1. finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling.
  2. getting very anxious about social situations.
  3. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.
  4. seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to.
  5. finding it hard to say how you feel.

Can you have autistic traits and not be autistic? ›

No, there is no such thing as being a little autistic. Many people may show some characteristics of autism from time to time. This may include avoiding bright lights and noises, preferring to be alone and being rigid about rules.

How do I know if I have mild autism? ›

Characteristics of Mild Autism

Repetitive or fixated behaviors, interests, or activities: Autistic people often repeat movements or words as a way to self-regulate, a behavior often referred to as “stimming.” They may also adhere to specific routines and have specific and intense interests.

Is ADHD a disability? ›

Yes. Whether you view attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as neurological — affecting how the brain concentrates or thinks — or consider ADHD as a disability that impacts working, there is no question that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers individuals with ADHD.

What does high functioning autism look like in adults? ›

Difficulty Communicating and Awkward Communication

Signs that someone is finding it difficult to communicate include: – Difficulty reading social cues and participating in conversations. – Difficulty empathizing with other people's thoughts and feelings. – Struggling to read people's body language or facial expressions.

How do I know if I'm Neurodivergent? ›

You absolutely are neurodivergent if you have been diagnosed with a developmental or learning disorder, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or Tourette's syndrome. You may decide to consider yourself neurodivergent if you have no diagnosis but think, behave, or interact in ways that are outside the norm.

What do I do if I think im autistic? ›

How to get diagnosed
  1. Talk to someone for advice. If you or your child have signs of autism, the next step is to talk to someone about it. You could speak to: a GP. ...
  2. Have an autism assessment. An autism assessment is where a team of autism specialists check if you or your child are autistic. An assessment team may:

What is borderline autistic? ›

To be diagnosed with borderline autism, a child must display many of them but not in the frequency or severity that merits a full diagnosis. Borderline autism symptoms include problems with: social skills, body use, the ability to adapt or make transitions, language and other sensory and developmental issues.

What can mimic high-functioning autism? ›

Examples include:
  • Avoidant personality disorder.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Reactive attachment disorder.
  • Social (pragmatic) communication disorder.
  • Schizophrenia, which rarely happens in children.
18 Jan 2022

How do you tell if you're on the spectrum? ›

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Adults
  1. Difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling.
  2. Trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language, or social cues.
  3. Difficulty regulating emotion.
  4. Trouble keeping up a conversation.
  5. Inflection that does not reflect feelings.
14 Jul 2022

What is the mildest form of autism? ›

Asperger's syndrome.

This is on the milder end of the autism spectrum. A person with Asperger's may be very intelligent and able to handle their daily life.

Can you be autistic and understand social cues? ›

Individuals on the autism spectrum often have difficulty recognising and understanding social cues and therefore do not instinctively learn to adjust their behaviour to suit different social contexts. People with autism may well have the potential to learn these skills however.

Do autistic people have empathy? ›

In the course of our studies of social and emotional skills, some of our research volunteers with autism and their families mentioned to us that people with autism do display empathy. Many of these individuals said they experience typical, or even excessive, empathy at times.

Why does ADHD make you tired? ›

ADHD can affect motivation. A person may find daily tasks overwhelming and struggle to complete them. This low sense of motivation can feel similar to fatigue, especially if a person feels unable to keep up with their responsibilities.

What does severe ADHD look like in adults? ›

Adults with ADHD may find it difficult to focus and prioritize, leading to missed deadlines and forgotten meetings or social plans. The inability to control impulses can range from impatience waiting in line or driving in traffic to mood swings and outbursts of anger.

Can ADHD make you tired? ›

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms associated with ADHD — and one of the least talked about.

Videos

1. Autism symptoms in girls rtf | adult ADHD symptoms | ADHD symptoms in women
(The Disorders Care)
2. Autism in Women: How My Late Diagnosis Allowed Me to Fully Accept Myself (@potentia.neurodiversity)
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3. Autism in Females: How is it Different? | Kati Morton
(Kati Morton)
4. Understanding the Lived Experiences of Women with Autism
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5. ADHD and Autism Relationship Accommodations -- How to Get Your Needs Met
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6. 369 | PTSD, ASD, ADHD and Women with Juliet
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