Autism vs. Down Syndrome: What’s The Difference?

Down Syndrome and autism are lifelong conditions with some overlapping characteristics. While they may occur together, they are distinct conditions with different causes.

Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that appears during early fetal development. Autism, on the other hand, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that generally appears in early childhood. [i]

There are some similarities in symptoms between Down syndrome and autism. People with either condition may have trouble socializing, communicating, and with mood regulation. They may also have obsessive interests or perform repetitive behaviors.

One key difference between autism and Down syndrome is that autism does not affect physical appearance, whereas Down syndrome can exhibit very distinct features. [ii]

The Drake Institute uses a unique non-drug approach to treating autism that includes qEEG brain mapping to identify brain dysregulation linked to autism symptoms, and has treated patients with both Down syndrome and autism. For decades, we have used advanced treatment technologies like qEEG brain mapping and neurofeedback to address brain dysregulation to reduce symptoms.

For more information regarding our non-drug treatment protocols, call us at 800-700-4233 or fill out the contact form. 

What Is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that ranges from mild to severe and includes repetitive behaviors, impaired social communication, restricted interests, and rigidity.

Prior to 2013, autism was recognized as a disorder separate from similar conditions like Asperger’s Disorder, childhood disintegration disorder, and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified.) However, in 2013, the DSM-5 recategorized all these disorders that now make up the Autism Spectrum.

There is no single known cause of autism, but genetic and/or environmental factors may be involved. [iii]

What Are The Signs & Symptoms Of Autism?

Signs and symptoms of autism can appear by 2 years old. By 3 or 4, there is typically enough developmental information to make a diagnosis.

Below are the signs and symptoms generally associated with autistic children: [iv]

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Doesn’t respond to name by 9 months of age
  • Lack of facial expressions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, etc.) by 9 months of age
  • Doesn’t play simple interactive games (e.g., pat-e-cake) by 12 months of age
  • Uses few or no hand gestures (e.g., doesn’t wave hello or goodbye) by 12 months of age
  • Doesn’t share interests with others (e.g., doesn’t show you their favorite toy) by 15 months of age
  • Doesn’t point to show you something interesting by 18 months of age
  • Doesn’t notice when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age
  • Doesn’t notice other children and play with them by 36 months of age
  • Doesn’t pretend to be someone else (e.g., teacher, superhero, etc.) by 48 months of age
  • Doesn’t sing, act, or dance for you by 60 months of age

What Is Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that arises during cell division. During this early phase of fetal development, abnormal cell division leads to a third copy of the 21st chromosome. This third chromosome leads to a host of neurological and physical abnormalities. [v]

Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition in the US, occurring at a rate of about 1 in every 700 births. While severity differs from person to person, the disorder causes intellectual disability, learning disabilities, and developmental delays; it is also commonly associated with gastrointestinal and heart conditions.[vi]

What Are The Characteristics Of Down Syndrome?

People with Down syndrome are characterized by certain physical features[vii]

Below is a list of common characteristics of Down syndrome:

  • A face with flattened features, especially along the bridge of the nose
  • Eyes that are almond-shaped and slant upwards
  • A shortened neck
  • Small ears
  • A tongue that may stick out of the mouth
  • White spots on the iris (colored part) of the eye
  • Small hands and feet
  • A single line across the palm of the hand (palmar crease)
  • Pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb
  • Poor muscle tone or loose joints
  • Shorter in height as children and adults

How Do Autism & Down Syndrome Compare?

When it comes to autism vs. Down syndrome, there are differences between autism and Down syndrome, as well as similarities.

The conditions arise from different causes, as Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder, whereas multiple genetic, environmental, and biological factors may contribute to Autism. Both can be accompanied by learning disabilities and challenges in socializing. Here are a few similarities and differences between Down syndrome and autism.


One of the primary similarities between autism and Down syndrome is that they both negatively impact communication. Eye contact may present a challenge during one-to-one conversations, and there may be limited ability for reciprocal conversations.

Similarities can occur in behavior as well. Both conditions may lead to restricted interests that may seem strange to others. Other similarities may include adhering to a strict routine, repetitive play, sensory differences, anxiety, and developmental delays.[viii]


While there are similarities in some behaviors, there are also significant differences. For example, while people with Down syndrome may struggle to communicate more fully with appropriate grammar, they are often friendly and enjoy socializing. Some individuals with ASD, on the other hand, may prefer to be alone, and may not enjoy socializing.

When interacting with peers, those on the spectrum may completely disregard others or play parallel to them, but not with them. Those with Down syndrome tend to copy and play with others.

Autistic individuals may have impairment in language development, with delayed language skills, while people with Down syndrome develop language more like neurotypical children. So, are Down syndrome and autism the same thing or the same disorder? No. They are distinct disorders with different causes that may show some similar symptoms, but also differences.

For those wondering which is worse, Down syndrome or autism, there is no simple answer. Both disorders present unique challenges and vary in severity. The key to a better outcome for patients is early identification with clinical intervention and support. [ix]

How Does The Drake Institute Treat Autism?

The Drake Institute uses specialized, advanced technologies including QEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neurostimulation to help reduce the presence and severity of symptoms related to autism, ADHD, stress, anxiety, PTSD, and other medical conditions.

The Drake Institute uses the following technologies to help patients with brain-based disorders.

Brain Mapping

Brain mapping is part of the clinical evaluation in developing our individualized treatment plans. In this stage, 19 sensors are placed around the patient’s scalp in targeted locations of the brain responsible for focus, executive functioning, memory, language, social processing, emotional regulation, and more.

The sensors measure brain activity, and the results are examined to identify any areas or brain networks that are dysregulated linked to symptoms. Our Medical Director compares the findings on the QEEG to what is happening with the patient so that he can develop the most effective, individualized treatment protocol for each patient.


After brain mapping has been completed, neurofeedback training is used to help patients reduce the symptoms of autism.

This treatment protocol improves brain dysregulation by guiding brain activity toward healthier and more functional patterns.

In some patients, biomedical abnormalities may need to be ruled out or treated to maximize improvement from neurofeedback therapy.


In some cases, we may also use neurostimulation guided by QEEG brain map findings to gently guide the brain into a more optimal functioning pattern. We’ve found that some patients benefit even more from neurofeedback if we also use neurostimulation. Neurostimulation is particularly helpful for lower-functioning children on the Autism Spectrum.

Contact The Drake Institute Today!

At the Drake Institute, we know how challenging life can be for autistic children, children with Down’s syndrome, and their families. Please contact us if you need help for disorders such as autism, Down’s syndrome, ADHD, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more. Please fill out the free consultation form or call us at 800-700-4233.












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“David F. Velkoff, M.D., our Medical Director and co-founder, supervises all evaluation procedures and treatment programs. He is recognized as a physician pioneer in using biofeedback, qEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neuromodulation in the treatment of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and stress related illnesses including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Dr. David Velkoff earned his Master’s degree in Psychology from the California State University at Los Angeles in 1975, and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in 1976. This was followed by Dr. Velkoff completing his internship in Obstetrics and Gynecology with an elective in Neurology at the University of California Medical Center in Irvine. He then shifted his specialty to Neurophysical Medicine and received his initial training in biofeedback/neurofeedback in Neurophysical Medicine from the leading doctors in the world in biofeedback at the renown Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. In 1980, he co-founded the Drake Institute of Neurophysical Medicine. Seeking to better understand the link between illness and the mind, Dr. Velkoff served as the clinical director of an international research study on psychoneuroimmunology with the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This was a follow-up study to an earlier clinical collaborative effort with UCLA School of Medicine demonstrating how the Drake Institute's stress treatment resulted in improved immune functioning of natural killer cell activity. Dr. Velkoff served as one of the founding associate editors of the scientific publication, Journal of Neurotherapy. He has been an invited guest lecturer at Los Angeles Children's Hospital, UCLA, Cedars Sinai Medical Center-Thalians Mental Health Center, St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, and CHADD. He has been a medical consultant in Neurophysical Medicine to CNN, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Univision, and PBS.”

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