Difference Between Emotional Behavior Disorder and Autism

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What is the difference between emotional behavior disorder and autism? The two conditions are often confused due to the fact that some school districts place students with emotional behavior disorder and autism together in the same classes. However, emotional behavior disorder and autism are two separate conditions. Learn about the two conditions and how to recognize the differences between them.

Definition of Emotional Behavior Disorder

Emotional behavior disorder (EBD) is also known as emotional behavioral disability, emotional disturbance (ED) and serious emotional disturbance (SED). EBD is a condition in which individuals have trouble with a persistent unhappy mood as well as inappropriate emotional responses and behavior. The condition can also affect social interaction, communication, learning.

Schools use the term EBD and ED to describe student behavior and take it into consideration during class placement based on the criteria from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA describes the characteristics of students with EBD as:

  • Learning problems that are not due to intellectual, health or sensory issues
  • Problems with social interaction and appropriate behavior
  • Inappropriate feelings, behavior or responses to normal situations
  • Depression
  • Tendency to develop fears or negative physical reactions to school problems or family issues

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) has six categories for emotional behavior problems:

  • Attention problems
  • Conduct disorder
  • Anxiety/withdrawal
  • Social aggression
  • Motor excess
  • Psychotic behavior

Many mental health and special education experts criticize DSM-IV-TR's categories for emotional behavioral conditions as too broad.

Autism Defined

Autism is defined by the DSM-IV-TR as a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). It is one of five PDDS that include Asperger's Syndrome, PDD-NOS, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett's Syndrome. Autism is a spectrum disorder and each person experiences symptoms and levels of impairment. Symptoms of autism include:

  • Serious delays in early childhood developmental milestones
  • Reluctant to make eye contact
  • Limited to no verbal speech and vocabulary development
  • Severe language delays
  • No pretend play
  • Preference to be alone and does not want to interact with peers
  • Problems making friends
  • Difficulty understanding verbal instructions
  • Appears aloof
  • Frequent irrational tantrums
  • Requires a strict routine
  • Has a narrow range of interests
  • Problems with attention
  • Sensory issues, such as having an unusual reaction to certain sounds, tastes, sights and textures
  • Obsessive or repetitive behavior such as hand flapping, skin picking or spinning

Diagnosis Confusion Between Autism and EBD

Getting a correct diagnosis is sometimes difficult, especially for disorders that resemble other medical conditions. In the case of autism and EBD, the similar behavioral, communication and social interaction problems between the two disorders sometimes lead to an incorrect diagnosis. Some experts point out the EBD is mainly dealing with emotionally based behavior, while autism generally has complex symptoms in addition to behavior problems.

The fact that people with autism may also have EBD can make diagnosis tricky. Sometimes a doctor only diagnoses one of the conditions and not the other, which can lead to problems related to the untreated condition. If a parent suspects a child has autism, EBD or both conditions, it important to seek a proper diagnosis immediately. Any parent not happy with the diagnosis should seek a second or even third opinion to make sure a child gets the right help.

The Difference Between Emotional Behavior Disorder and Autism

There are significant differences between emotional behavior disorder and autism. Differences between EBD and autism include the following:

  • Autism is a spectrum disorder with specific communication, social, behavior and learning problems. EBD deals only with emotional response and behavior problems.
  • Autism is sometimes characterized by sensory issues. EBD does not include sensory problems.
  • Autism may include physical health symptoms, such gastrointestinal issues, which some experts claim relates to behavior. According to IDEA, EBD is not related to a health issue.
  • Autism is characterized by serious early childhood milestone delays, motor skill impairments and the lack of development of speech. EBD does not always include early childhood delays.
  • Autism is usually diagnosed in early childhood but EBD may get a diagnosis in late childhood or adolescence.
  • Autistic people require a strict routine, but the need for strict routines is not emphasized to the same degree in EBD.


Autism and EBD are two separate medical conditions with some similar symptoms. The fact that people can have both autism and EBD makes a correct diagnosis difficult. Some parents are not happy that schools sometimes place EBD and autism students together in class situations because of the different treatment requirements of the two disorders. Getting a proper diagnosis can help families seek the best treatment and education plan for their children.

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Difference Between Emotional Behavior Disorder and Autism