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Understanding Autism and OCD: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding Autism and OCD: A Comprehensive Guide

Most of us have heard of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You hear the term, and your mind immediately paints the picture: doing the same action repeatedly, checking your alarm five times before bed, or obsessing over a concern. But what exactly is this disorder, and is there a link between autism and OCD?

Autism and OCD are two conditions that often intersect, leading to unique challenges for children and their parents. Luckily, with some work and patience, your child can live a happy and fulfilled life despite these challenges. As we delve deeper into this complex relationship, we’ll learn more about the link between autism and OCD and the most effective ways to manage them.

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What is OCD?

According to APA, Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions). In their attempt to get rid of these thoughts, they feel the need to do something repetitively (compulsions).


Individuals with OCD often deal with obsessions, which are recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that cause distressing emotions such as anxiety, fear, or disgust. Some of the common contents of obsessional thoughts, according to research, are:

  • Fear of contamination by people or their environment
  • Religious thoughts or fears
  • Fear of executing aggression or being harmed
  • Extreme worry about something not being completed
  • Extreme concern with order and precision


In response to these obsessions, people with OCD turn to using compulsions as a way to ease their distress of obsessional thinking. They’re repetitive behaviors or mental acts and often include:

  • Excessive handwashing, showering, and more
  • Excessive cleaning of household objects
  • Ordering or arranging items in a particular way
  • Repeatedly checking locks, doors, switches, etc.
  • Rituals in the forms of counting, repeating, or avoiding certain numbers

Prevalence of Autism and OCD

Recent studies have shed light on the connection between autism and OCD. According to a 2017 research study, anxiety disorders and OCD are highly prevalent in individuals with ASD, with as much as 17% of autistic individuals having OCD.

According to another recent study conducted with 73 adult patients with OCD, 47% of them showed signs of having autism, as well. 

The Overlapping Traits Of Autism and OCD

Although, at first, they may seem completely different, autism and OCD are occasionally overlapping conditions that affect children’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions. While ASD primarily affects social interaction and behavior, OCD revolves around intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors.

Still, they have some things in common: both of these conditions involve intense focus on specific interests or activities and difficulties in navigating social situations.

However, it’s important to remember that these conditions don’t necessarily cause one another. Unfortunately, their co-occurrence can make diagnosis and treatment more complex.

17% of autistic individuals have OCD, according to an article in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.

The Common Link Between Autism and OCD

While autism and OCD are distinct conditions, they share characteristics that make them hard to diagnose. These characteristics can occur independently. However, their coexistence could suggest a more intricate relationship between these conditions.

Their common ground

Children with autism and OCD often share behavioral traits, which causes certain diagnostic challenges. For example, repetitive behaviors, such as hand-flapping, are common in both conditions. On top of that, a recent study claims that sensory sensitivities, a common trait found in children on the spectrum, can trigger obsessive behaviors in children with OCD. 

Shared Neural Pathways

According to recent research, certain brain circuits are involved in both autism and OCD. These shared neural pathways may explain the connection between these two conditions. These brain parts involve decision-making, regulating emotions, and managing repetitive behaviors.

The Symptoms of Autism and OCD

For us to understand the connection between autism and OCD better, it’s crucial to get insights into both of these conditions separately. Their symptoms are their biggest differences, although they can sometimes overlap.

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Although there are many signs and symptoms of autism that are unique to each child, there are some common ones that are often found among individuals on the spectrum:

  • Children with autism often struggle with social interaction, nonverbal communication, and relationships
  • Children on the spectrum often show intense interest and engage in repetitive behaviors
  • They often struggle with speech and language development

Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Most children with OCD struggle with intrusive thoughts or fears. They often cause intense feelings of anxiety, which causes children to perform specific rituals to alleviate the intense emotions they’re experiencing. These rituals, like handwashing or counting, provide temporary relief but often become consuming.

The Potential Causes of Autism and OCD

Research into the potential causes of autism and OCD in children is an ongoing and complex field. Although there is no single cause of the co-occurrence of these conditions, researchers have identified certain factors that can contribute to their development.

Genetic Predisposition

Genetic factors play a big role in the development of autism and OCD. Studies have discovered certain genetic variations that increase the risk of both disorders. The complex interplay of these factors could potentially contribute to the overlap of these two conditions.

Environmental Influences

Studies have shown that environmental factors, which include early life experiences and exposures, may also contribute to the development of autism and OCD. The interaction between genetics and environmental triggers could lead to the development of both of these disorders.

The Importance of Early Intervention

The connection between autism and OCD has been a subject of much research. There is evidence that early intervention can lead to improved outcomes and a better quality of life for both the affected children and their families.

Diagnostic Challenges

Diagnosing autism and OCD in children requires careful consideration of all of their shared symptoms. It’s important for medical professionals to differentiate between compulsion driven by OCD and repetitive behaviors that are caused by autism.

Because of their overlapping symptoms, the diagnosis requires careful assessment and observation of the child and their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Early intervention is crucial for accurate diagnosis and establishing effective management strategies.

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How to Manage Autism and OCD

Managing both autism and OCD can be challenging. However, with the right strategies and support, children with both conditions can improve their quality of life. Here are the two most effective strategies to manage these two conditions.

Tailored Interventions

Every child on the spectrum is unique. Because of that, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that will work for managing autism and OCD. Tailoring interventions to the child’s specific needs and challenges and going for an individualized approach is crucial for effective management.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy proved to be a promising therapeutic approach for managing autism and OCD symptoms and difficulties. With this management strategy, children have healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety and compulsions. 


A recent study suggests that certain medications could improve OCD symptoms in ASD. However, it’s important to note that qualified healthcare professionals should prescribe and monitor medication, typically in combination with other therapeutic interventions.

How to Relieve Anxiety in a Child with OCD

Feelings of fear and anxiety are one of the most common traits of OCD in children. Here are some things, according to research, you can do to help your child with these intense emotions:

  • Carefully observe any behavior rituals to identify their source. Note those that lead to anxiety outbursts when interfered with.
  • Remember, if a behavior is identified as being compulsive, then the child cannot control it themselves first. They need an adult to step in and implement clear environmental controls.
  • Initially, the anxiety behavior will increase in intensity when boundaries are established. This is often difficult to observe. Work as a family or school team to support each other through this difficult but hopefully short practice.
  • Ensure that adults around the child do not panic or show emotional reactions to the anxiety meltdowns. This will feed and prolong this part of the process.
  • Begin by controlling or prohibiting the behaviors that are causing the child the most anxiety, and work down the list as each one is eradicated. Be sure not to use obsessions to bargain with children. They need to trust us and the structure we put in.
  • Be observant of any new ritualistic behavior or behaviors that return and establish the same strong boundaries.


In the complex world of neurodevelopmental disorders, the connection between autism and OCD raises fascinating questions about the brain’s inner workings. By understanding their shared traits and learning effective management strategies, you can confidently navigate this journey.

Remember: seeking professional guidance and building a support network and environment are key steps towards empowering your child and helping them live a happy and fulfilling life.


Q: Can OCD develop later in life for children with autism

A: Yes, OCD can emerge at any age. However, it may become more apparent as your child grows and learns how to communicate their thoughts better.

Q: How can I differentiate between a special interest in autism and an obsessive behavior in OCD

A: Special interests in autism are typically intense but harmless passions, while OCD-related interests are driven by anxiety. They often lead to rituals that are particularly aimed at reducing these intense feelings. 

Q: Are there any medications that help manage autism and OCD symptoms? 

A: Some medications can address symptoms like anxiety and repetitive behaviors. Remember that they should always be prescribed and monitored by a medical professional.

Q: What role do routines play in managing autism and OCD? 

A: Routines provide structure and predictability. They help with reducing anxiety and minimizing the urge for repetitive behaviors.

Q: Is it possible for a child to outgrow their OCD symptoms? 

A: With early intervention and appropriate treatment, children can learn certain coping strategies that will help them manage their symptoms effectively.

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