Autism or OCD? How to tell the difference!

autism recovery

How do you tell the difference between an OCD behavior and an autistic trait?

A while back, I did a post explaining the difference between an eating disorder behavior and an autistic trait...I mention this at the beginning of this post on OCD because the answer is quite similar. The distinguishing factor between an autistic trait and any "disordered" behavior comes down to the intention behind the behavior.

 Just like ED behaviors and autistic traits can be hard to distinguish from one another due to their nuanced and overlapping nature, OCD can often look like autism and autism can often look like OCD. However, as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato so eloquently expressed: “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” Therefore, when it comes to differentiating OCD from autism, we need to look closer at each condition and their roots.

Defining OCD

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, fifth edition), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is diagnosed based on a selection of criteria that elaborate on the presence of obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are defined as recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress. It also says that the individual attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images, with some other thought or action such as by performing a compulsion.

Compulsions are defined as repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.

As we can conclude from this definition, the obsessions are unwanted and cause distress, meaning the use of compulsive behaviors stems from a place of wanting to get rid of that negative feeling. If one or more compulsions isn’t performed, fear of the unwanted emotions arises. In other words, OCD behaviors stem from a place of fear. It’s important to remember this, because it’s a stark contrast from the root of an autistic behavior.

Defining Autism

Now let’s go back to the DSM-5 to define autism. I’m gonna tell you right off the bat that I’m NOT a fan of the terminology they use, for officially, autism is called Autism Spectrum Disorder. Just like OCD and all the other “disorders” in the manual, autism is diagnosed based on a list of criteria. Because the list for autism is quite long I’m not going to list it here, but I think we can all agree that in simple terms, autism can be categorized as a different way of thinking, being, and engaging with the world. This includes having specific interests, repetitive behavior patterns, unique preferences for social communication and interaction.

The problem with the DSM-5’s definition of autism – not to mention the general world view of autism – is its being labeled as a disorder. Because the preferences and behaviors of an autistic individual are different from the “norm” and society loves to slap judgment and labels onto anything that veers away from typical, it’s decided to say that being autistic is a disordered way of being. Yet it’s this very viewpoint of seeing autism as a malady rather than a gift that creates the perception that autistic people are broken and need to change. But because we can’t change our inherent way of being, we turn to things like OCD and eating disorders as they give us a false sense of control in a world that tries to control us!

Because autism is an inherent part of someone’s identity, autistic behaviors, by nature, are rooted in love. Just like a neurotypical person expresses love for themselves by drawing a warm bath or lighting a candle or putting on a comfy sweatshirt, an autistic person who lines up all their pencils in rainbow order or always counts how many seconds they brush their teeth or eats the same food for breakfast every day because they love it, these are all behaviors that emanate self-compassion and safety.


The root of the behavior is exactly how to tell the difference between OCD and autism. To recap, OCD behaviors are rooted in fear. Fear that something bad will happen when the compulsion isn’t acted upon. But as I just mentioned, autistic behaviors are rooted in love. They help us function and optimize our experience of life.

Literally, OCD creates disORDER while embracing one’s autistic self creates ORDER. Therefore, autism cannot be a disorder!

If you want to have a conversation with me and learn how you can embrace your autistic self and let go of disorder in your life whether that being an ED, OCD, or any other type of hindrance, schedule a consultation call for 1-1 coaching here.

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