Many people who have loved ones diagnosed with autism and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) will be able to note the similarities between the two disorders. New research even suggests that the two are linked and that people on the autism spectrum may be more likely to be diagnosed with OCD. One study (Leyfer et al. 2006) has found that 35% of young people with ASD that were observed were also diagnosed with OCD.
But what connects these two disorders? Let’s explore the ties between autism and OCD, including their similarities and differences.
Similarities Between ASD and OCD
Both of these neurological disorders have overlapping characteristics, which make them appear unduly similar to one another. These similarities include:
- People with either diagnosis will struggle more than the average person in social situations.
- Obsessive tendencies
- Extremely detail-oriented
- Repetitive and ritualistic behavior, including self-soothing movements such as stimming
- Both disorders often receive the same therapeutic treatment, though the exact strategies are not always the same. This can include Applied Behavioral Analysis and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Both often experience irrational fears and compulsions that are hard to control and make everyday life more difficult, though these exact fears and compulsions are likely to be different.
Differences Between ASD and OCD
The truth is that while both disorders seem to be similar (and they do share notable similarities), these similarities are often caused by different things or experienced in different ways according to the disorder. These differences can help to distinguish between the two disorders or identify whether a person is affected by a comorbid disorder (both at the same time).
As noted above, people with ASD and OCD can experience difficulties with socializing. And while this is true, the root causes of these difficulties are very different. Many people with ASD experience significant impairments related to socializing and can struggle to develop speech, language, and communication skills. For people with OCD, their ability to socialize effectively can be hampered by their compulsive and ritualistic behavior, but their social skills are not impaired in the same way.
Though they share some characteristics, OCD is largely characterized as an anxiety disorder, wherein emotional outbursts are triggered by heightened stress. And it is this anxiety that is the biggest difference between the two disorders. While people with ASD can certainly experience anxiety as a result of their disorder, it is not as chronic as it is for people with OCD.
Both disorders involve compulsive behavior, but these behaviors entail different causes and effects. For people on the autism spectrum, their compulsive and obsessive behaviors are not intrusive or a cause of distress – more often than not, they embrace these tendencies. On the other hand, these extreme compulsions can be a source of great discomfort to people with OCD and are often the most distressing feature of their disorder.
The same can be said for their repetitive behaviors and strict routines. One is a source of comfort (ASD), and the other can be debilitating.
Is OCD Autism?
Some people who are diagnosed with or exhibit symptoms of OCD may wonder whether it is a form of autism and a sign that they may be on the spectrum. The answer is complicated – OCD is certainly not equivalent to autism, as both are separate neurological disorders that require different treatments and approaches. But a person who has been diagnosed with OCD may also have underlying symptoms of ASD – according to a 2015 study, people with OCD are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than someone without. And in some cases, they may even be incorrectly misdiagnosed with OCD when they are actually on the autism spectrum.
If you, your child, or a loved one has been diagnosed with OCD or autism, have comorbidities of the two, or suspect that you may have been misdiagnosed, don’t hesitate to contact our team at Bolling Behavioral Consulting. We are an Atlanta-based consultancy that provides professional services to individuals and families dealing with ASD, OCD, and related disorders. Call us at 404.981.4105 or book your first consultation online.