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For Families

Symptoms Can Overlap: Autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing, Depression and Anxiety

Five happy children sitting in a field.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 22 Mar 2024

Published 29 Feb 2024

Early intervention is key for childhood mental health. In this article, we will describe symptoms and characteristics across a number of diagnoses that are common in childhood. 

There is a lot of overlap between related diagnoses and symptoms. More than 1 in 6 children have significant challenges that can be autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety, or sensory processing. There is a lot of overlap between symptoms for all of these diagnoses and characteristics.  

At Cadey, learn how these are related and how they are different. For working parents, information is a powerful tool you can use to help your child. Understanding their symptoms is the first step to helping your child and advocating for them at school and in the community. Let’s talk about autism.

Autism can be complex and may overlap with many other diagnoses. 

This is important to consider because a clear understanding of your child’s needs can create a more effective treatment plan.

  1. Sometimes, autism is suspected, but anxiety, ADHD, trauma, attachment, or another disability is the underlying problem instead. 
  2. Other times, more than one diagnosis is applicable. Autistic children are at a higher risk for having other conditions like ADHD and anxiety. Sensory Processing challenges are common symptoms for kids with autism, ADHD, or anxiety. 

Would you like to learn more about the signs of autism? Check out Cadey’s courses, which are included as part of the Cadey membership platform.

Autism & ADHD

Many autistic children are first diagnosed with ADHD. That does not necessarily mean that the diagnosis is wrong. At least 60% of autistic children may also have ADHD. 

  • Sometimes the tendency for an autistic child to be internally distracted, or focused on something in their head, may look to observers like a lack of focused attention. 
  • Sometimes autistic children don’t shift attention well, thus they may be doing what the rest of the class was doing 20 minutes ago. This behavior can look inattentive or defiant. 
  • Is your child focused in the classroom but impulsive and hyperactive on the playground? Those characteristics could mean autism.

Autism & Anxiety

Up to 42% of autistic children may also have significant anxiety. 

  • Autistic children are more likely to have a phobia than the general population.
  • Sometimes autistic children can be bossy or controlling. 
  • Often autistic children are anxious because they struggle in social situations and do best when things are predictable. 

Many autistic girls are diagnosed with anxiety first. 

  • Autism can be harder to spot in girls because some symptoms like restricted interests may be subtle. Girls may become interested in horses or dolls which can seem typical unless taken to an extreme.
  • Girls tend to have better nonverbal communication and coping skills than boys. This may be in part due to cultural expectations and experiences.

Autism & Depression

50% of autistic individuals may experience depression in their lifetime. 

  • Sometimes, autistic teens really struggle to express and put words to feelings. They may report feeling “nothing at all,” but others may notice signs of depression. These kids might perceive mistreatment from peers when that is not the peer’s intent. 
  • Autistic children are also more likely to experience bullying, which impacts mental health. 

Autism characteristics can be confused with trauma, OCD, and attachment disorders. 

  • Sometimes social behavior is impaired for reasons that are not autism. Looking at development and ruling out traumatic experiences can clarify this.
  • Autistic children may be more susceptible to trauma and mistreatment. 
  • Often autistic children struggle with sleep, eating, and toileting or have significant sensory difficulties. These challenges are also common in instances of trauma.

If you would like to learn more about the signs and symptoms of autism, check out Cadey’s courses, which are part of the Cadey membership platform.