Autism vs. Learning and Attention Issues: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin



At a Glance

  • Kids with autism and learning and attention issues can have similar symptoms.
  • Autism doesn’t impact all kids in the same way.
  • Some kids with autism have a lot in common with kids with learning and attention issues.

Some kids with learning and attention issues struggle with the same skills as kids on the (also known as “autism spectrum disorder” or ASD). Kids with learning and attention issues can have , meltdowns, trouble with social skills and other challenges that also affect kids with autism.

Because of these similarities, it may seem like both groups of kids would benefit from the same type of interventions. But there are differences between learning and attention issues and autism that are important to understand. Here’s what you need to know.

What You Need to Know About Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how kids process certain types of information. Many people with autism have difficulty with social interaction and communication. They may also have trouble with perseveration.

It’s not uncommon for kids with autism to have an obsessive interest in certain topics or items. You may also see kids engaging in repetitive behaviors, routines and movements (which some people call stimming). And kids with autism often have sensory processing issues.

For many years, autism was considered an “umbrella” diagnosis that covered several different conditions. These included ;, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS); Rett syndrome; childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD or Heller’s syndrome); and autistic disorder. Although the conditions had some overlap of signs and symptoms, they were separate diagnoses.

This changed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in May 2013. This manual gives professionals the criteria needed to make a diagnosis. In the DSM-5, Asperger’s syndrome, PDD-NOS and CDD are no longer listed as diagnoses. All of the subgroups are under the diagnosis “autism spectrum disorder.” (Rett syndrome is now recognized as a separate genetic disorder.)

All kids with ASD have some symptoms in common. But the word spectrum means there’s a range of how the symptoms impact kids. That impact is described by a Support Level of 1, 2 or 3, with 3 indicating that a high level of support will be needed.

It’s important to know that many advocates in the autism community embrace the idea of neurodiversity. It’s a concept that says brain-based conditions like ADHD and autism aren’t “abnormal.” They’re simply variations of the human brain.

The neurodiversity movement emphasizes fighting stigma and promoting inclusion, instead of focusing on “curing” people whose brains work differently.

Why People Confuse Autism With Learning and Attention Issues

Some kids with autism do not have the significant speech or intellectual delays that kids with autism can have. There are many kids with autism who have an average  or who are in the “gifted” range. But they do have social difficulties. Before the DSM-5 was released, these kids were often diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

These are kids whose issues could be mistaken for learning and attention issues. To some degree, that’s because the symptoms overlap. For example, kids with autism may show some of the following traits:

  • Trouble recognizing other people’s feelings and “reading” nonverbal cues.This is when kids tend to be very literal and don’t always understand puns, riddles or figures of speech. These symptoms are also seen with social communication disorder, ADHD and receptive language issues.
  • Difficulty with executive function. Some kids with autism find it hard to get organized and solve problems. They can struggle to keep their emotions in check and change the way they do things without getting upset. Kids with ADHD and often have similar issues.
  • A tendency to seek out or avoid sensory input. This is also common in kids with sensory processing issues and ADHD. (Learn about the difference between ADHD and sensory processing issues.)
  • A tendency to be clumsy and uncoordinated. Kids may have trouble with handwriting, riding a bike, catching a ball or running. These can also be symptoms of dyspraxia,  and sensory processing issues.
  • Trouble working with words. Many kids may struggle to express themselves, follow conversations, and speak with the right volume and inflection. These are also symptoms of speech-language issues and nonverbal learning disabilities.

How Autism and Learning and Attention Issues Are Different

There’s a lot of overlap in the symptoms of autism and learning and attention issues.ADHD and autism are related. And autism and learning disabilities can occur together. Bu tautism is not a learning disability.

For kids with autism, the main struggle involves social understanding, communication and repetitive routines or behaviors—including narrow and obsessive interests.

These symptoms are not typical of kids with learning and attention issues. The narrow interests and repetitive behavior also make autism different from nonverbal learning disabilities, which can otherwise look a lot like autism.

Like kids with autism, kids with learning and attention issues may struggle with social skills and communication. But those struggles are related to their specific learning issues.

For instance, a child with visual processing issues may stand too close to someone during conversation because he has trouble judging distances. A child with autism might stand too close because he has a poor sense of personal space. (Read how one family used the “elbow rule” to teach about personal space.)

What You Can Do

Before you get the right support for your child, you’ll need to know whether he has autism or a learning or attention issue (or both). Talk to your child’s doctor about a referral to a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.

Find out what to do if you’re concerned your child might have learning and attention issues. Get tips on how to help your child with social cues. And read one mother’s story of raising kids who have both learning and attention issues and autism.

Key Takeaways

  • The symptoms of autism can be mistaken for learning and attention issues.
  • Some kids have both learning and attention issues andautism.
  • Knowing your child’s diagnosis is important for finding the best strategies to help.

About the Author

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

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The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children by Linda Spiro, PsyD

How to Spot Dyscalculia by Rae Jacobson

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Basics by Child Mind Institute

How to Help Anxious Kids in Social Situations by Katherine Martinelli

Anxiety in the Classroom by Rachel Ehmke

The Benefits Of Unsupervised Play Will Make You Want To Back Off Your Kids' Activities In A Big Wayby Katie McPherson

How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids by Brigit Katz

3 Defining Features of ADHD That Everyone Overlooks by  William Dodson, M.D.

Should emotions be taught in schools? by Grace Rubenstein

Reviewed by

Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.