Autism and OCD: The Similarities and Differences

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are two conditions that sometimes present with similar symptoms, but they are distinct and separate disorders. Seeking comfort through repetitive behaviours is just one of several ways that autism and OCD seem alike.

Research has shown that a higher percentage of people with ASD also have OCD when compared to the general population. Here we will explore the similarities and differences between ASD and OCD to provide a better understanding of these conditions.

What is OCD?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder that can significantly impact an individual’s daily life. OCD is characterised by the presence of obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are intrusive, persistent, and often disturbing thoughts, images, or impulses that cause significant distress and anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that individuals feel driven to perform to alleviate their anxiety or prevent perceived harm.

OCD affects approximately 2% of the population. Its onset typically occurs in adolescence or early adulthood. While the exact causes of OCD are still unclear, research suggests that genetics, environmental factors and brain chemistry may all play a role in its development.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, behaviour and sensory processing. It is considered a “spectrum” disorder. This means that people with this autism can exhibit a wide range of symptoms and varying degrees of challenges.

Common characteristics of autism include difficulties with social interaction and communication, repetitive behaviours or routines and sensory processing differences.

For example, individuals with autism may have difficulty with eye contact, understanding social cues or sarcasm, or engaging in conversation. They may also exhibit repetitive behaviours or rituals, such as lining up objects or repeating words or phrases. People with autism may have heightened sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli, such as loud noises or textures.

Autism is a lifelong condition that typically becomes apparent in early childhood. While the exact causes of autism are not yet fully understood, it is believed that both genetic and environmental factors may play a role.

Similarities Between OCD and Autism

While autism and OCD are distinct and separate conditions, they do share some common symptoms and characteristics.

For instance, repeatedly opening and closing a drawer is something that both an autistic adult and someone with OCD might habitually do. However, while the autistic adult may be performing this ritualised behaviour because they enjoy the sound and/or the action of pushing and pulling the drawer, a person with OCD could be performing the same behaviour because they believe that if they don’t, something terrible will happen to someone they care about. Clearly, the former is soothing and enjoyable, whereas the latter is extremely distressing.

It is important to note that not all individuals with autism or OCD will exhibit all of these similarities, and these similarities alone are not sufficient for a diagnosis of either condition.

Some of the commonalities between autism and OCD include:

  • Repetitive behaviours: Both conditions involve repetitive behaviours. In autism, these behaviours may manifest as stereotypical movements, such as flapping hands or rocking back and forth. In OCD, these behaviours may be compulsions, such as excessive cleaning or repeated checking.
  • Ritualistic behaviours: People with autism, OCD or both may engage in ritualistic behaviours or routines. These routines often provide a sense of comfort or control and can be difficult to interrupt or change.
  • Sensory processing differences: Both conditions can involve differences in sensory processing. People with autism may have heightened sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli, such as loud noises or bright lights. Similarly, people with OCD may have sensory sensitivities, such as a need for things to be “just right” or symmetrical.
  • Difficulty with transitions: Individuals with both autism and OCD may have difficulty with transitions or changes in routine. These changes can cause anxiety or distress and may lead to behaviours aimed at maintaining predictability or control.

Differences Between OCD and Autism

Despite their similarities, autism and OCD are still two distinct conditions. However, it is important to note that the differences between OCD and Autism are not definitive and that there can be overlapping symptoms and characteristics.

Some of the differences between autism and OCD include:

  • Nature of repetitive behaviours: While both conditions involve repetitive behaviours, the nature of these behaviours is different. In autism, these behaviours are often self-stimulatory and can involve a wide range of activities, such as flapping hands or spinning objects. In OCD, these behaviours are compulsive and are driven by a need to alleviate anxiety or prevent perceived harm.
  • Type of obsession: Individuals with OCD experience obsessions that are often centred around themes of contamination, harm, or symmetry. In contrast, individuals with autism may have a narrow range of interests or preoccupations that are not necessarily anxiety-driven.
  • Social interaction difficulties: While individuals with both autism and OCD often have difficulties with social interaction, the nature of these difficulties is different. With autism, these difficulties can manifest as a lack of social reciprocity or difficulty with nonverbal communication. In OCD, social difficulties may be related to fears of contamination or harm, which can make social situations anxiety-provoking.
  • Sensory differences: Although sensory processing differences are a common feature in both conditions, the nature of these differences can vary significantly. People with autism often have heightened sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli, while individuals with OCD may have sensory sensitivities related to a need for things to be “just right”.


It is not uncommon for people with autism or OCD to be misdiagnosed or to receive a diagnosis for only one condition when they actually have both. This is because the symptoms of these conditions can overlap and be difficult to distinguish from each other.

Unfortunately, the similarities between certain traits of both autism and OCD mean that many autistic adults have had their symptoms of OCD dismissed as autistic traits at some point.

Autism Diagnosis Process

A diagnosis of autism involves a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified healthcare professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. This evaluation typically includes a thorough medical and developmental history, observation of the person’s behaviour and social interactions, and standardised assessments of communication and social skills.

OCD Diagnosis Process

The diagnosis of OCD also involves a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified healthcare professional. Similarly to autism, this evaluation typically includes a thorough medical and psychiatric history, observation of the individual’s behaviour, and standardised assessments of OCD symptoms.

Specialist Support for Autism and OCD

Here at Liaise, our vision is to create a safe, happy and enriching environment for people with varied and complex needs such as autism and OCD. We believe that with the right support in place, a full and independent life is possible for everyone.

In our community-based residential care and supported living homes, our dedicated staff works hard to promote personal growth and social interaction. We encourage the people we support to learn new skills, build meaningful relationships and achieve positive outcomes in their lives.

We are here to help your family and provide impartial support and guidance. Every day, at every step of the way, we help you thrive.

To learn more about our specialist support services, do not hesitate to contact our friendly team.