I’ve Heard That Autism and ADHD Are Related. Is That True?

By Elizabeth Harstad

I’ve heard that autism and ADHD are related. Is that true?

Elizabeth Harstad

Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital

Autism spectrum disorder and ADHD are related in several ways. ADHD is not on the autism spectrum, but they have some of the same symptoms. And having one of these conditions also increases the likelihood of having the other.

Experts have changed the way they think about how autism and ADHD are related. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) stated that a person couldn’t have autism and ADHD. But the newest version (called DSM-5), published in 2013, allows for a person to be diagnosed with both.

But let me back up a bit and talk about how the symptoms of autism and ADHD can overlap. Here are two examples:

  • Trouble paying attention: Kids with autism may struggle with this for several reasons. One is that language difficulties can make it seem like a child isn’t paying attention to directions. But the truth may be that he just doesn’t understand the directions.
  • Trouble with social interactions: ADHD can affect social skills. This might include avoiding eye contact and getting into other people’s personal space.

Sometimes these overlapping symptoms can cause a child to be incorrectly diagnosed with one condition rather than the other. If you’re ever concerned about a possible misdiagnosis, talk to your child’s doctor. Doctors are very used to having these kinds of conversations and can even help you get a second opinion.

In addition to the issue of overlapping symptoms, it’s important to know that having one condition increases the chances of having symptoms of the other. Many developmental issues are like this—they’re likely to occur together. For example, children with language issues are more likely to have reading disorders.

That’s why it’s important to consider all aspects of a child’s developmental functioning. This includes language, social skills, attention, behavior, mood, academic skills, social skills, play skills and motor skills. A detailed neuropsychological evaluation and/or assessment by a health-care provider will ensure that all areas of development are addressed. And having a complete picture can help ensure that a child gets the right supports.

Another way that autism and ADHD are related is that they share genetic risks. A person with autism has an increased chance of having a close relative with ADHD or another developmental disorder. More research is needed to better understand these genetic risks. But some experts think there may be a similar underlying basis for autism and ADHD.

Because autism and ADHD often have overlapping symptoms, some of the interventions for one can be helpful for the other. For example, children with both conditions usually benefit from sticking to a routine and knowing what to expect.

However, there are also big differences in the type of therapy recommended for each. Therapy for autism like Applied Behavior Analysis can be used to help with communication skills. It can also help reduce repetitive behaviors, which is one of the hallmarks of autism.

Therapy for ADHD is geared toward improving attention and organization. This therapy is often paired with ADHD medication. But this medication may not help kids who don’t have ADHD.

I know from working with many parents that it would help if each condition were neatly separated from others. But that isn’t the reality. That’s why learning more about each is a good first step toward understanding the complex ways in which they’re related.

See a chart that compares ADHD and autism. And learn more about autism and learning and attention issues.

About the Author

Portrait of Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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