9 Conditions That Look Like Autism—but Aren’t

By | April 12, 2019

While the symptoms may seem similar, these conditions aren’t actually autism. Here’s how experts tell the difference.

What is autism?

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This condition turns up early in childhood or even infancy, and it’s characterized by a child’s difficulties with speech, non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The symptoms of autism spectrum disorder can fall into two categories:

Social interaction and communication problems: According to the APA, these can include difficulty with back-and-forth communication, and a failure to share interests or feelings.

Difficulty relating to people, things, and events: These can include missed social cues, trouble making friends, and not being able to read facial expressions or hold eye contact, says the APA.

Autism numbers may be higher than experts realized: Although the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that 1 in 59 children has autism, a 2018 study in the journal Pediatrics found that one in 40 children in the United States has the condition.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

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The symptoms of OCD—such as compulsive hand washing, cleaning, or touching items like doorknobs—can resemble the repetitive motions of autism. People with OCD have a hard time keeping their focus off their obsessions, a phenomenon also shared by those with autism. The key difference is that people with OCD often feel uncomfortable, bothered, or tormented by their compulsions, reports verywellhealth, while repetitive or intrusive thoughts don’t always bother people with autism—the impulses can even be a source of comfort. Unlike autism, OCD can strike at any age and hits women slightly more than men, according to the APA, and it can be managed with talk therapy and medications.


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Also known as antisocial personality disorder, this “pattern of disregarding or violating the rights of others,” according to the APA, can lead a person to act impulsively and disregard social norms. This may sound similar to autism, but the key difference is that people with sociopathy “operate in a single-minded fashion, employing any means to fulfill their self-serving objectives,” reports Psychology Today. In other words, their behavior is to further an agenda; with autism, there’s no agenda or ulterior motive. Another difference is that abuse, neglect, and a violent childhood can play a role in developing sociopathy—and that’s definitely not true with autism. Although the symptoms aren’t the same for everyone on the spectrum, these are the silent signs of autism all parents should know.

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