Navigating the Overlapping Realms of Autism and OCD: Insights from a Child Psychiatrist

autism mental health ocd parenting Jun 05, 2023
Overview image: Autism vs OCD: Understanding the Differences with Dr. Arielle Rubin

As a parent, understanding the intricacies of autism is crucial for providing the best possible support to your child. However, when a second diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) enters the picture, distinguishing between the two can be quite challenging. The similarities between the repetitive behaviors found in each condition can blur the lines and make it difficult to determine whether a symptom is related to autism or OCD.

In this comprehensive blog post, I will help you explore the similarities and differences between autism and OCD through the lens of my background as a child psychiatrist.

By shedding light on this topic, I aim to provide valuable insights and support to help you navigate these complexities.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by neurodevelopmental differences that affect an individual's social communication, behavior, and sensory processing. Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests are commonly observed in individuals with autism. These behaviors may appear similar to obsessions and compulsions seen in OCD, but it's essential to recognize that they serve different purposes and arise from distinct underlying mechanisms.

For individuals with autism, rituals and repetitive behaviors often bring comfort and joy.

These behaviors can manifest as:

  • Repetitive movements (such as hand flapping or rocking)
  • Conversations about preferred topics of interest
  • Repetitive speech derived from movie scripts or previous conversations
  • Engaging in these repetitive behaviors provides a sense of control and stability for individuals with autism. Therefore, it's important to understand that these behaviors are inherent to their
  • Autism persona and may not necessarily require different treatment as a mental health diagnosis.


On the other hand, in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), repetitive or obsessive behaviors are triggered by negative emotional thoughts.

These thoughts generate distressing and stressful emotions within an individual's brain, creating an internal sense of needing to "neutralize" these thoughts. The rituals that follow these obsessive thoughts are not performed for self-soothing or joy but instead driven by the compelling need to alleviate the overwhelming negative thoughts or feelings.


One key differentiating factor between autism and OCD lies in the specific themes of obsessive thoughts and compulsions. 


OCD behaviors often revolve around themes unrelated to the individual's autism interests or hobbies.

Some common themes in OCD include:

  • Contamination fears
  • Aggression or harm-related obsessions
  • Excessive checking rituals driven by worry
  • The need for symmetry
  • Religious or moral obsessions
  • Unwanted sexual thoughts
  • These themes reflect the distinct nature of OCD and help clinicians differentiate it from autism.


Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding OCD can prevent individuals from seeking help and treatment for the disorder. 


Many thoughts associated with OCD can be considered taboo or socially unacceptable, leading individuals to experience shame and hide their symptoms. This mirrors the concept of masking observed in autism, where individuals conceal their autistic traits in an attempt to fit into societal norms.

To accurately distinguish between autism and OCD symptoms and develop an appropriate treatment plan, it's important to work with trained professionals. By collaborating with experts in the field, parents and caregivers can better understand their child's needs and provide practical support. Trained professionals can help identify whether there is a co-occurring OCD diagnosis alongside autism and tailor interventions accordingly.


Treatment strategies for autism and OCD can vary significantly. 


While some rituals and repetitive behaviors in autism may not require separate treatment, OCD typically warrants specific therapeutic approaches. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a standard treatment modality for OCD, focusing on identifying and challenging obsessive thoughts and reducing compulsive behaviors. In some cases, medication may also be considered to manage OCD symptoms.

By understanding the nuances between autism and OCD, parents and caregivers can better support their loved ones. Acknowledging that certain rituals may be comforting and essential for individuals with autism fosters greater understanding and respect for their unique behaviors. It also emphasizes the importance of seeking professional guidance to ensure appropriate interventions are provided.


In conclusion, navigating the similarities and differences between autism and OCD can be complex.


By delving into the distinct features of each condition, we gain valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms and treatment approaches. It is crucial to work with professionals to diagnose and differentiate between autism and OCD symptoms accurately. By doing so, we can provide effective treatment and support, ultimately improving the lives of individuals with these conditions. Together, we can cultivate empathy and understanding, paving the way for a more comprehensive and supportive society.

Take Dr. Arielle Rubin's FREE quiz for parents

Take the free quiz for parents to discover your psychological flexibility.

This quiz will start you on a journey so you and your child can grow together. With the right education and support you can develop a positive, happier, and productive life for every member of your family.

Take the FREE quiz
Click to go back to the education overview page

All content within Autism Roadmaps is provided for educational and informational purposes only. Purchasing this course does not represent a doctor-patient relationship. There is no personal medical advice, consultation, or treatment given on our platform.

This website is not a substitute for the professional advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by your own medical or mental health provider. Please contact a medical professional if you have a medical emergency or need medical attention.