Are ADHD and Autism Related?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism can present in very similar ways. Children and teens with either disorder can have difficulty focusing, struggle with impulsivity, and have a hard time communicating. They may also experience problems at school with schoolwork and relationships both in and outside of school.

Difficulty concentrating, inability to focus on tasks, fidgeting, and the inability to make eye contact are all hallmark symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While these symptoms do match what most people understand about this disorder and even members of the medical community may steer towards diagnosing it when presented with a specific list of symptoms. However, before a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is made, it is essential to consider it may not be the only answer. For some children, another diagnosis might make sense, and it is beneficial to understand how attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism can be easily confused and how they may overlap.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder vs. Autism

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder. It is estimated that approximately ten percent of children in the United States between the ages of two and seventeen have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When one is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, they are diagnosed with one of three types.

  • Predominately hyperactive-Impulsive
  • Predominately inattentive
  • Combination (a type of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder where one experiences both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms)

A combination diagnosis is the most common diagnosis. The average age at which children are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity is around seven. Boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with it than girls. The difference in diagnosis rates may be due to how attention deficit hyperactivity disorder presents in the sexes. The disorder will look different in boys than girls, and symptoms may be easier to spot.

Autism

Autism or Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is another childhood condition that affects an increasing number of children each year. Autism spectrum disorder is a group of related and complex disorders that affect various developmental aspects of a child’s growth. Autism spectrum disorder affects behavior, development, and communication (language skills and social interaction). It can also affect a child’s ability to learn. Approximately one out of every sixty-eight children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. As with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, boys are almost five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.

Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism

When either disorder is in its earliest stages, it is not unusual for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder to be mistaken for one another. Children and teens with either condition may experience difficulties with communication and focus. Although they share some similar symptoms, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder are two separate, distinct conditions.

Common Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms

Some common symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder include:

  • Being easily distracted
  • Easily and quickly growing bored with tasks
  • Jumping frequently from one task to another
  • Difficulty concentrating and narrowing attention to one specific task
  • Non-stop talking or “blurting” things out when not called upon to speak
  • Hyperactivity
  • Fidgeting/trouble sitting still
  • Interrupting conversations or activities, they are not part of
  • Lack of concern or inability to react to the emotions or feelings of others

Common Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms

Some common symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder include:

  • Being unresponsive to everyday stimuli
  • Intense focus and concentration on a singular or specific item
  • Lack of concern or inability to react to the emotions or feelings of others
  • Repetitive movements such as rocking or twisting
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Withdrawn behaviors
  • Impaired social interaction
  • Delayed developmental milestones

When Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Occur Together

One of the main reasons ADHD and autism spectrum disorder can be so difficult to distinguish from one another is that they can co-occur. Not every diagnosis for every child is clear cut. For some children and teens, one disorder may be to blame for their symptoms and developmental difficulties. For others, their symptoms may be the result of the disorders co-occurring.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that approximately fourteen percent of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)  also meet the requirements for an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. A study conducted in 2013, showed children with both conditions often had more debilitating symptoms than children Who did not exhibit autism spectrum disorder traits. This means children with both ADHD and autism spectrum disorder symptoms were more likely to experience learning difficulties and impaired social skills than children who only had one of the conditions.

How Are They Different?

Given the similarities between ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, it can be challenging to determine how the illnesses differ. One way this can be done is to monitor how a child or teen Focuses their attention. Those with autism struggle to focus on things they don’t like, such as reading a book, doing homework, or completing a puzzle. Also, they may fixate on things they do like, such as a specific toy. Children and teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder dislike and avoid things they have to focus on, such as homework or a particular task.

It is also helpful to monitor how a child learns to communicate. Although children with either condition struggle with social interaction, children with an autism spectrum disorder tend to have less social awareness of those around them. They often struggle to assign words to their emotions and thoughts, and they may not be able to point to a specific object to give meaning to what they’re trying to say.

Children with autism spectrum disorder also struggle to make eye contact with people they are talking to. On the other hand, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may talk non-stop. They are more likely to interrupt when someone else is speaking or attempt to monopolize a conversation.

Another means of differentiation Focuses on routine. Autistic children typically love ordering repetition, whereas children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder do not. Autistic children may request the same type of food at a restaurant or become overly attached to a favorite item, such as a toy or an article of clothing. If routines change, a child with autism spectrum disorder may become upset. Quite the opposite, a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder does not like doing the same thing again or the same things for a long time.

When The Two Are Combined

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder are not the same illness, nor are they technically related. However, children can be diagnosed with both. For many years, the medical community was hesitant to diagnose a child with both. For that reason, there are very few medical studies available to help show the impact of the combination of conditions on children and teens. For that matter, The American Psychiatric Association indicated that the two conditions could not be diagnosed in the same person for many years. This changed in 2013 with the release of the DSM-5, where it was stated that the two conditions could indeed co-occur.

In 2014 a review of studies was conducted, which looked at the co-occurrence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. During this review, researchers found that between thirty and fifty percent of those with autism spectrum disorder also share symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Unfortunately, there is still little understanding around the cause of either condition or why they occur together with such frequency.

Treatment

It can be difficult for parents and even medical providers alike to tell the conditions apart; however, it is vital to discern between the two to ensure your child or teen gets proper treatment. There is no one size fits all treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many pediatricians and general practitioners do not have specialized training to understand the combinations of symptoms presented when children struggle with both at the same time. Various treatments are used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and often the management of those symptoms will help to manage the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder as well.

Medications

There are several medications commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Medications are often prescribed to help address some of the symptoms; however, they are typically not the only treatment used.

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Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is also a standard treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is also recommended first in younger children. For older children and teens, typically over the age of six, behavioral therapy is generally used in conjunction with medication. Behavioral therapy can take place in a variety of settings. The proper environment for your child or teen will depend mainly on the severity of their symptoms and what if any treatments have been tried before. Some types of therapy can occur in an outpatient setting, such as a doctor’s office or a therapist’s office. Others, again depending on the severity of your child’s symptoms, can occur in a residential care setting such as Hillcrest. As noted above, there is no cookie-cutter treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some children may experience mild symptoms, whereas others may experience severe and debilitating symptoms that impact their daily functioning.

At Hillcrest, we design Our treatment plans around evidence-based therapy practices intended to treat the needs of each specific individual who comes to our program. If your child has received an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis and you are wondering if their symptoms may point to a co-occurring autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, talk to your primary care provider and see if a different diagnosis is warranted. If you are curious about the treatment options we provide here at Hillcrest, give us a call today.