Is There a Link Between OCD and Autism Spectrum?

Aril is autism awareness and acceptance month. So in honor of this, and to highlight the neurodiversity-affirming and trauma-informed work we do at Spectrum Connections Therapy, we will share some more resources and blogs this month related to autism. At Spectrum Connections Therapy, we specialize in both Autism and OCD and this post will focus on the similarities and differences between both conditions. Autism and OCD can often seem similar on the surface and signs and symptoms get accidentally mislabeled as a result. Many people with autism use repetitive behaviors to self-soothe. This is also known as “stimming” and unless stimming is getting in the way of safety or daily functioning, we generally leave it alone as it is a very helpful way for autistics to feel safe and regulated. People with OCD practice ritualistic repeated behaviors, so it might appear similar to autism, but the reasons behind the repetitions are very much different. As well, Autism and OCD can absolutely occur together. It’s estimated that about 25% of people with autism also have OCD.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the similarities between these two conditions. Understanding some of the common symptoms and behaviors (and how they differ) can make it easier to determine what you’re dealing with, especially if you’re trying to help a loved one. 

What Are the Similarities? 

The similarities between OCD and autism show up in the common symptoms. Both involve repetitive behaviors, obsessions, and even anxiety. It’s not uncommon to see someone with autism tapping their feet, biting their nails, or twisting their hair. 

Someone with OCD might also exhibit these behaviors. 

People with either condition might also become hyper-focused on one particular thing. For those with OCD, it becomes an obsession. People with autism often use those focused pursuits to find enjoyment and comfort.

Finally, people with either condition can experience extreme worry. Both rely on rituals and routines, and if those things get interrupted or disrupted, it can create anxiety, fear, and extreme distress.

What Are the Differences? 

The similarities between autism and OCD really stop on the surface. While they might “look” the same, the reasons behind those symptoms are very different. 

For example, suppose a person with autism is excessively tapping their feet or twisting their hair. In that case, they are likely doing it to stim—to ease boredom, and anxiety, or to combat sensory overload. If a person with OCD is excessively tapping their feet or twisting their hair, they aren’t doing it to self-soothe. Rather, they might feel the compulsion to do those things out of fear that something negative will happen if they don’t. So at the root, autistics may engage in these behaviors out of pleasure or self-soothing. A person with OCD may do it to relieve intense distress for a feared outcome if they don’t engage in the behavior.

When it comes to anxiety, it’s not sensory overload that causes extreme worry in people with OCD. Rather, it’s usually a fear of bad things happening or negative intrusive thoughts. 

Rigid Thinking

People with autism and/or OCD tend to be rigid thinkers. They see things as black and white and have a hard time changing their perspective or viewing things in different ways. 

That kind of rigidity can lead to similar needs between the two conditions. Both require routine and stability as a source of comfort and security. However, they’re still two very different conditions. 

What If Someone Has Both? 

As suggested in the statistic above, it’s completely possible for someone to have both autism and OCD. In those cases, it’s important to receive two separate diagnoses. That’s not always easy since the symptoms are so similar. But, getting the right diagnosis will help with each condition since treatment options are so different.

Someone with autism might not initially be diagnosed with OCD as well, so be sure to talk to your doctor or the doctor of your loved one if you feel there’s more than one condition affecting you/them. 

Dealing with either autism or OCD isn’t always easy. The best thing you can do is make sure you’ve received a proper diagnosis. Doing so will help your doctor or mental health professional come up with the right kind of treatment plan, so symptoms can be managed more easily. 

If you or someone you care about is dealing with any of the symptoms listed here, feel free to contact me for more information or to set up an appointment. 

Be well,

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