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Hoarding and Autism


It’s common for people to assume that hoarding disorder and autism come from the same tree of mental/emotional/developmental disorders. However, that’s not really the case. The mistake that a lot of people make is to look at the obsessive behaviors that are common to both disorders and then assume that the root causes of those behaviors are the same.

It’s the science that shows autism and hoarding are verifiably two distinct conditions. However, it would be as much of a mistake to think there is no connection between autism and collecting things like a hoarder. There are enough similarities to warrant some level of inquiry, which will take place in the following sections.

What is Hoarding?

Hoarding disorder can best be characterized as an individual’s obsessive need to accumulate and hold on dearly to items that seemingly have little to no value. In the eyes of many people, the stuff hoarders like to accumulate could best be described as trash or junk. What makes this disorder so devious is an individual can be caught up in the throes of hoarding disorder without even realizing it. They often hoard things without having the ability to explain why they do it.

Note: While teenagers can be affected by hoarding disorder, it’s largely a condition that affects adults.

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder or autism is a condition that is created by brain developmental issues. It manifests in the way that affected individuals communicate and socialize with other people. The term spectrum is included in the naming of the condition to indicate the condition can cover a wide range of symptoms and increasing levels of severity.

Autism usually starts early in childhood and has a profound effect on the individual’s social and educational development and ability to communicate. At the lowest levels of severity, an autistic child might appear quite normal but exhibit a propensity to small obsessions. At the highest level of severity, an autistic child will isolate themselves in a world that is only known to them.

Similarities Between Hoarding Disorder and Autism

At the core of similarities between hoarding disorder and autism is each condition can be linked to behavioral inflexibility. That term is defined as an inability to stop doing something or to change a behavior. It should be clear that this is similar to the definition of obsessive behavior. So yes, both hoarders and autistics can obsess over things that matter to them with no regard for how the obsession is viewed by others.

Other similarities can be found in the high levels of anxiety that individuals in both categories might feel. It’s this anxiety that could be one of the root causes of the obsessive behaviors that both hoarders and autistics often display. Individuals in both groups will try to soothe their anxiety by holding onto something they value.

Difference Between Hoarding Disorder and Autism

The main difference between hoarding and autism derives from the role that obsession plays in each condition. You see, hoarding disorder is all about obsession, the obsession to collect things and hold onto them. With autism, obsessive behavior is simply a possible symptom of the condition. Plenty of autistics will show little to no obsessive behaviors.

The bottom line is the evidence that these conditions are distinct is supported by this: Not all hoarders are autistic and not all autistic hoarders. It’s only when a person displays both conditions that they can be said to have “co-occurring” disorders.

The Signs of Hoarding

Hoarding Teenager Messy Room

Now that clarity has been offered regarding hoarding and autism, it seems prudent to offer some additional information related to hoarding disorder. Furthermore, it seems prudent to start at the beginning with the signs of hoarding disorder. Being able to pick up the signs of hoarding makes it possible to identify that someone is dealing with this condition so they can get help sooner rather than later. The key signs or symptoms of hoarding disorder are:

  • Have difficulty parting with items regardless of the value of said items
  • Excessive accumulation of a particular thing to the point of creating clutter
  • Difficulty moving around the home due to clutter
  • Problems within personal relationships
  • Legal difficulties with homeowners associations or landlords
  • Physical health issues created by the exposure to bacteria and pollutants
  • Pest issues that can create unhealthy living conditions
  • Difficulting focusing, organizing, and finishing tasks

The Causes of Hoarding Disorder and Autism

As for the root causes of hoarding disorder and autism, researchers have far less information about the potential causes of hoarding versus autism. However, researchers and psychologists have been able to create a rough profile of the attributes that seem to be common among hoarders. These attributes do offer some insight as to causation. The aforementioned profile includes attributes like:

  • Tend to be single and live alone
  • Grew up in an unorganized environment – family history of hoarding
  • Suffered various forms of deprivation during childhood
  • Might have been the victim of abuse (mental, emotional, physical, or sexual
  • Prone to experience bouts of anxiety
  • Existence of other mental disorders – depression, PTSD, dementia, schizophrenia, and ADHD

There is a lot more scientific information about the causes of autism. At the most basic level, there are three potential causes of this condition. Any to all of these causes could have caused a particular autistic child’s condition. The three basic causes are:

  • Genetics – mutations in DNA (noted in 80% of autistic individuals)
  • Biology – issues with brain function, immune system, body’s metabolism, etc.
  • Environmental – premature birth, exposure to pollutants in the womb, illness from mother while in the womb

Note: Environmental factors don’t normally act as primary causes but can play a role when combined with genetic or biological issues.

Hoarding Disorder and Autism Treatment

Hoarding Disorder and Autism Treatment

To be clear, there is no cure for hoarding disorder. However, there are therapeutic treatments that have proven to be very effective at helping hoarders control their obsessive behaviors. The most effective treatments include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – teaching patients to recognize and change negative thoughts to positive thoughts
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) – teaching patients to recognize and change negative feelings to positive feelings
  • Group Therapy – discussions among recovering hoarders are helpful
  • Medications – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors

Treating autism requires a very different approach. With children, treatments will largely focus on “vocational” teaching. That might include social skills training, speech therapy, and sensory control therapy. Medication is also an option after a child reaches 5-6 years old.

Some of the same options can be used with adults. However, Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapies are usually preferred once someone reaches adolescence.

Clutter Trucker is Here to Help

Clutter Trucker is a reputable junk and trash removal company in the Denver area. As part of doing business in a busy metro area, we have had many occasions to provide clean-up services for hoarding disorder sufferers. We are proud to serve these fine people with compassion as they work hard to get their lives back on track.

Clutter Trucker team

If you or someone you love is dealing with a hoarding problem and would like to hire us to help with some decluttering, we’ll be happy to help. You can contact us to schedule an appointment at 720-802-6340 in Denver or 719-372-5009 in Colorado Springs.