This Q&A is from Understood.org and Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. 

My son has a lot of trouble with social skills, and I’m beginning to suspect he has autism. What’s the difference between autism and the social challenges associated with learning and attention issues?

Social challenges are one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome may share some characteristics with kids who have learning and attention issues. For example, there’s a lot of overlap between nonverbal learning disabilities and Asperger’s syndrome.

Kids with milder forms of ASD may also share some characteristics with kids who have social communication disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s not uncommon for children with these conditions to repeat a joke in the wrong place and at the wrong time. They may have trouble finding the word they want to say. They may also struggle with the back and forth of conversation that seems to come so naturally to their peers.

Because of these similarities, a lot of the information on Understood may help kids with ASD. The sections on understanding your child’s rights and partnering with your child’s school may be very helpful. The articles about picking up on social cues may also help kids with milder forms of ASD.

But it’s important to note that social challenges are only one of the symptoms of ASD. Other key symptoms include communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors. These other issues help explain why kids who are on the autism spectrum will also need very different types of strategies and supports that are not covered on Understood. (Autism Speaks is a great resource for parents of kids with autism.)

I want to mention one bit of general advice. In my experience, when kids are struggling, it helps when parents try to look past labels. Yes, those labels will find your child through the evaluation process. But remember that what you’re setting out to do is identify your child’s areas of specific need so you can get him the right kinds of help.

With the proper strategies and support, he can start making progress in school, feeling good about himself and making and keeping friends. Understanding his needs is the key to helping him become more and more self-assured and independent in the classroom and outside of it too.


Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Understood.org is a great website for information on learning and attention issues.  The website also features an online community for you to connect with other parents.  https://www.understood.org/en