Autism and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) share some symptoms. Sometimes, people may mistake one for the other. It is also possible for people to be autistic and have PTSD, too.
The reasons for this are not fully understood, but it could be due to how autism affects perceptions of danger and the prevalence of autism stigma and abuse.
Understanding the similarities, differences, and overlap between autism and PTSD can ensure people receive the right diagnosis and support.
Keep reading to learn more about autism and PTSD, including a comparison of their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Autism is a spectrum of neurodevelopmental differences that affect communication, social interaction, interests, and behavior. The signs develop in early childhood and have strong links to genetics, meaning that autism often runs in families.
Autism is not a treatable condition; it is a long-term difference in the way people think and perceive the world. It is also relatively uncommon. Experts estimate autism affects around
In contrast, PTSD is a
When a person has PTSD as a result of several traumatic experiences or an ongoing experience, it is known as complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
Vicarious trauma, where a person develops PTSD after witnessing or hearing about someone else’s traumatic experiences, is also possible.
While autism and PTSD are distinct, they share some of the same symptoms and complications. Both may cause:
- Sensory sensitivities: PTSD and autism can both cause sensitivity to certain noises, smells, or crowded places.
- Difficulty in social situations: Autism can affect how a person communicates and how they interpret the behavior of people who are not autistic. For some, PTSD can also make socializing stressful if they are afraid of other people or strangers.
- Repetitive behavior: Stimming is a repetitive behavior that a person uses to manage stress or anxiety. It is a potential feature of autism but can also affect those with PTSD and anxiety. Similarly, repetitive play
can also featureamong children in either case.
- Difficulty regulating emotions: People with either autism or PTSD may have more difficulty regulating their feelings than others, which can lead to outbursts of anger, panic, or withdrawal from others.
- Avoidance: Autistic people and those with PTSD often try to avoid stimuli, places, or people that cause distress.
- Lack of speech: Some autistic people are nonspeaking, meaning they do not talk. Sometimes, traumatic experiences or anxiety can also lead to a lack of speech. Doctors call this mutism.
It is important for healthcare professionals to know about this overlap, as it can make it harder to accurately diagnose autism or PTSD. This is especially true for children, who may not be able to explain how they feel or what they have experienced.
It is also pertinent information for people with C-PTSD. C-PTSD can cause a broader range of symptoms than PTSD and can be harder to identify because it does not occur after a single, acute event.
Data suggests PTSD is more common among autistic people than nonautistic people.
The authors of a small 2020 study with 59 adults estimated that
A larger 2021 survey of 687 autistic adults found that 44% met the PTSD criteria.
However, in both cases, the participants were not a random sample, so they are not representative of all autistic people.
Why might PTSD be more common in autistic people?
PTSD may be more common among autistic people because they can experience stigma and are more vulnerable to abuse. A 2023 study notes that previous research has shown autistic people often experience:
- intimate partner violence
The study also notes that autistic people are more likely to experience interpersonal violence than nonautistic people, while the 2021 survey mentioned above found that 72% of participants had experienced some form of assault.
However, autism itself
- affect how a person processes sensory information, making events seem more dangerous or scary
- affect how able a person is to cope with what happened
- make it more difficult to get social support due to difficulty communicating or socializing
However, developing PTSD is
Although there are similarities, autism and PTSD do have key differences in their symptoms. For example, PTSD can cause some symptoms that autism does not, such as:
Autism also has some effects that PTSD does not, such as:
- specific and intense interests
- difficulty with imaginative play (in children)
- very logical or literal thinking
- significant distress when daily routines change, even if only slightly
People who are autistic and have PTSD may have a mixture of symptoms, but those symptoms can also interact with each other in unique ways.
For example, an autistic person’s sensory sensitivities may be even more pronounced as a result of PTSD, as this can cause hyperarousal.
Similarly, avoidance may manifest as a retreat into repetitive behaviors or a focus on solitary activities.
For people who have symptoms that could be autism or PTSD, diagnosis requires a comprehensive evaluation from a psychologist. In children, this may be a child psychologist.
During an evaluation, the healthcare professional will consider the person’s:
- personal history
- communication skills
- repetitive behaviors
- mental health symptoms
- daily functioning
In children, the evaluation may also include play, which allows the healthcare professional to see whether there are repetitive themes or difficulty using imagination.
However, distinguishing these conditions can be challenging. For people who already have one diagnosis, it can also be harder to get the second one. This is due to “
For autism, any needed interventions focus on alleviating symptoms that interfere with quality of life. It involves different types of support depending on the person but
- speech and language therapy
- sensory integration therapy
- physical therapy
- social skills training
In cases of co-occurring autism and PTSD, therapists may need to adapt their approach to accommodate the individual’s specific needs. For example, autistic people in talk therapy may need:
- a greater number of sessions to establish trust
- a longer or shorter duration to each session
- regular breaks
There is currently a
Anyone who believes they could have PTSD or that they are autistic can speak with a doctor or mental health professional for advice and support. The healthcare professional can explain the next steps and may provide a referral to a specialist.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Autism and PTSD have some overlapping symptoms, including sensory sensitivities, avoidant behaviors, and potential difficulty in social situations. However, they are distinct conditions and have very different underlying causes.
Understanding the overlap between autism and PTSD is essential for an accurate diagnosis. These conditions can also coexist. By understanding how they interact, mental health professionals can create a tailored approach that meets the needs of each person.