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Is There Any Evidence That Autism and Learning and Attention Issues Are Connected?

By Elizabeth Harstad

Is there any scientific evidence that autism and learning and attention issues are somehow linked?

Elizabeth Harstad

Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital

Yes, there is some scientific research that shows a link between autism and learning and attention issues. One connection between the two has to do with risk factors.

Kids with autism are more likely to have ADHD, developmental delays and learning issues than kids who don’t have autism. They’re also at increased risk of having issues with motor skills and with sensory processing. Both of these can interfere with learning.

Another way autism and learning and attention issues are connected is that they can have overlapping symptoms. We don’t know yet if the overlap has the same root cause. But studies of genes indicate there is at least some sort of connection.

Our genes are passed down to us from our parents and determine things such as our hair color and eye color—and even how we develop and learn. Each gene is a tiny set of instructions. And each cell in the human body has about 25,000 genes.

Sometimes the same gene can look slightly different in different people. Scientists refer to this as a “gene variant.”

Here’s one way to think of the concept of gene variants. Think of a gene as like a page in a book. My version of the book might be a little different from my husband’s version. Mine has the word “theater” on page 3. His does, too. But his is spelled differently: “theatre.” Neither spelling is wrong. Just different.

So far, a few studies have shown that certain genes—and gene variants—play a role in both autism and in learning and attention issues.

In one study, researchers looked at groups of kids with different conditions. One group included kids with dyslexia and language problems. Another included autistic kids who have difficulty understanding language. The researchers found that the different groups had the same gene variants.

There are also some genetic links between autism and ADHD.

But much more research is needed to understand the role certain genes may play in learning and attention issues. Just because a child has a certain variant doesn’t mean that child will develop a certain condition.

Genes can be influenced by each other and by things in the environment. They can also be expressed differently in different people.

These are some reasons why doctors typically don’t order genetic testing for children with learning and attention issues. It wouldn’t be helpful yet. We need to learn a lot more before these tests could be used to help diagnose or treat learning and attention issues.

But if you suspect your child has autism or learning and attention issues or both, there’s a lot you can do. Talk with your child’s teacher and doctor. By discussing your concerns, you can start to work together to create a plan for success and help your child reach his full learning potential.

About the Author

Portrait of Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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