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ADHD vs. Autism: Spotting the Signs & How They Differ

All children have a hard time to paying attention and focusing every now and then – but if these behaviours become persistent and a child struggles to pay attention to topics they enjoy, it could signal an underlying issue like ADHD or autism spectrum condition.
Understanding Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) and ADHD

Autism spectrum condition (ASC) is a series of related developmental conditions that shows up in early infancy and childhood, and its sign and symptoms can vary widely. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopment disorder that usually shows up in early childhood, often accompanied by other disorders or conditions, and can affect a child’s ability to focus.

While the two disorders are different, they can present with very similar signs and symptoms. If you think your foster child might have ASC or ADHD, you’ll want to get them diagnosed correctly so they can get the treatment they need as soon as possible.

The Signs and Symptoms of Autism and ADHD

Common symptoms for both include:


  • Inability to pay attention
  • Hard time focusing
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Fidgeting
  • Impulsivity
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional outbursts

Children with ADHD might also have a hard time moderating their behaviour and be unaware of obvious dangers around them, while children with ASC might lack understanding of social cues, engage in repetitive behaviour and find it difficult to be in large groups or relate to the world around them.

Consider a child’s age and maturity when observing their behaviour – children in care often have behavioural difficulties or learning delays as a result of trauma and instability. You can read about what the most common form of trauma in foster children – attachment trauma – looks like here. [hyperlink to article]


We believe no child should be left behind.

How ADHD and Autism Are Different

ADHD and ASC work differently in the brain, but both are conditions with biological causes and do not come about because of bad parenting or trauma. While there are differences between ADHD and ASC, it’s not uncommon for children to have more than one condition – and since every child is unique, their conditions will be too.

Some common differences between the two include:

  • Children with autism can have trouble focusing on some things but are highly engaged with topics that interest them, while children with ADHD can have trouble focusing on any task that requires prolonged attention.
  • Children with autism may have less social awareness and find it hard to make eye contact or point to things, while children with ADHD may have a hard time sitting still.
  • Children with autism tend to love order and repetition, while children with ADHD dislike repetitive tasks.
  • Children with autism are prone to sensory overload, while children with ADHD are easily distracted by new things.
  • Children with ADHD may talk nonstop and interrupt others. Children with autism can do the same, but usually only about specific topics that interest them.

Early intervention can have an enormous impact on future development and skills, and as ADHD is common in children with autism it’s important to get a proper diagnosis to figure out the best treatment.

Treatments for autism are as varied as the disorder itself, but will usually include therapies such as behavioural therapy, educational and school-based therapies, and social skills training, and can also include medication.

Treatment for ADHD often combines medication and therapy, but every child’s case is unique so it will always depend on the child’s individual needs.

Some common at-home methods of dealing with ADHD and ASC include managing diet, giving positive attention and educational support, and creating a calm and structured environment.

What to Do if You Think Your Foster Child Has ADHD or Autism

If you think your foster child may have ADHD or ASC, it’s important to get them seen by a GP for diagnosis and to start the process of creating a treatment plan.

Compass Fostering also gives foster carers special training and support, including parenting courses, to help create a positive environment for every foster child’s individual needs. While children with these disorders can be challenging, caring for them is extremely rewarding if you can create a safe environment that allows their personality and intelligence to flourish.

If you aren’t sure if your child may have one or more of these disorders, you can find more information and support here:

The National Autistic Society
Child Autism UK
The ADHD Foundation
The UK ADHD Partnership

Foster children with special needs such as ADHD and autism are harder for local authorities to find homes for, but a stable and caring environment can make all the difference. Find out more about fostering special needs children by getting in touch with our friendly and knowledgeable team here at Compass Fostering.

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