When a school-aged child can’t focus on a task, parents may
be quick to diagnose them with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Difficulty concentrating on homework? Sounds like ADHD. Fidgeting and
difficulty sitting still? Again, sounds like ADHD. An inability to make or
maintain eye contact? All are symptoms of ADHD.
These symptoms do match what most people understand about
the common childhood behavior disorder. Even many doctors might naturally
gravitate toward that diagnosis. However, ADHD might not be the only answer.
Before you settle on an ADHD diagnosis, it’s worth
understanding how ADHD and autism, another common behavior disorder, can be
ADHD vs. Autism
ADHD is a common childhood behavioral disorder. Three types
of ADHD exist:
- predominately hyperactive-impulsive
- predominately inattentive
- combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive
According to data from the National
Institute of Mental Health, 9 percent of American children between the ages
of 13 and 18 have ADHD. The average onset age is 7 years old. Boys are four times
more likely to be diagnosed with it than girls.
Another childhood condition, autism spectrum disorder (ASD),
affects an increasing number of children. ASD is actually a group of complex
neurological disorders. These disorders affect behavior, development, and
communication. One in 68 American children has been diagnosed with it,
according to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Boys are five times more likely
to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
Symptoms of ADHD and Autism
Both disorders share many common symptoms. That’s why it’s
not unusual for one condition to be mistaken for the other in the earliest
Symptoms of ADHD include:
- being easily distracted
- frequently switching attention from one thing or
task to another
- difficulty focusing
- difficulty concentrating and narrowing attention
to one task
- growing bored quickly with tasks
- talking nonstop
- dashing around a room, jumping from object to
- having trouble sitting still
- blurting out
- interrupting conversations or activities
- not showing concern for other people’s emotions
Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:
- unresponsive to common stimuli
- impaired social interaction
- intense focus and concentration in a singular
- withdrawn behaviors
- avoiding eye contact
- an inability to react to others’ emotions or
- repetitive movement, such as rocking or twisting
- delayed developmental benchmarks
When They Occur Together
There may be a reason why symptoms of ADHD and autism can be
difficult to parse. Both can occur at the same time. A doctor may decide only
one of the disorders is primarily responsible for your child’s symptoms. Not
every child can be so clearly diagnosed, however. In those cases, kids with
either ADHD or autism may actually have both conditions.
One study in Pediatrics
found that 18 percent of children with ADHD exhibited behavior traits of
autism. Those children were also more impaired and had greater disability than
children who did not exhibit autism traits. In other words, children with ADHD
and autism symptoms were more likely to have substantial problems than children
who only have one of the conditions.
Understanding the Combination
According to the aforementioned Pediatrics study, many doctors
were hesitant to diagnose one child with both ADHD and autism for many years.
For that reason, very few medical studies have looked at the impact of the
combination of conditions on children and adults.
For many years, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stated
that the two conditions could not be diagnosed in the same person. However, in
2013, the Association changed its stance. In the “Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” (DSM-5), the APA states that the two
conditions can co-occur. The APA notes that doctors should also consider the
possibility of a separate disorder that might account for all of the behaviors.
Getting the Proper Treatment
The first step in helping your child get the proper
treatment is getting a correct diagnosis. You may need to seek out a child
behavior disorder specialist. A lot of pediatricians and general practitioners
do not have the training to clearly understand the combination of symptoms.
They may also miss another underlying condition that further complicates
The good news is, however, that managing the
symptoms of ADHD can help your child manage the symptoms of autism, too. The
behavioral techniques your child will learn may inevitably help lessen the
symptoms of autism. That’s why finding the proper diagnosis and getting adequate
treatment is so vital.