Health

ADHD and Autism Aren’t the Same, But They Are Closely Related

What to know — and do — if you think your child may be showing signs of one or both conditions.

A child plays with colorful blocks on the floor.
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Kids with ADHD can be distractible and hyperactive. Autistic kids are more often seen as socially awkward. But despite their differences, ADHD and autism are actually two sides of the same coin. The conditions have many overlapping symptoms, which can make it challenging to decipher whether a kid has one or both of them. And, as it turns out, many kids who have one condition have the other. But how similar are ADHD and autism? Is ADHD on the autism spectrum?

Officially, no. “Currently, they are separate conditions with intersecting features,” says Dena Gassner, a professor at Towson University, Ph.D. candidate at Adelphi University, and co-chair of the autistic researchers committee for the International Society for Autism Research. Personally, she agrees that ADHD is not on the autism spectrum. But not all experts are so sure.

Given that both conditions often share symptoms or co-occur, some researchers think autism and ADHD could belong on the same spectrum. “Are we looking at one condition that’s on a continuum, or two distinct conditions? I think we don’t know the answer to that question,” Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, told Spectrum. “There hasn’t really been enough systematic research.”

There’s so much that experts still don’t know about neurodiversity, and just how ADHD and autism are related is a prime example. But the more we know (experts and parents), the better we can come up with plans to help kids be their best selves.

More than half of autistic people with an official diagnosis also show signs of ADHD, the most common childhood condition to co-occur with autism, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). What’s more, one out of every four kids with ADHD has “low-level signs” of being on the autism spectrum.

The two conditions are viewed by some experts as part of a Venn diagram, with ADHD in one circle and autism in another. “In the middle of the Venn diagram, you’re going to find executive function is going to be one feature that presents [difficulties] in both cases,” Gassner says. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child likens executive functioning and self-regulation to air traffic control at a busy airport, noting that these are “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

But, Gassner notes, impacts on executive functioning — which is critical to kids’ (and adults’) abilities to cope with challenging situations life throws their way — can manifest differently depending on whether someone is autistic, has ADHD, or is neurodiverse in both ways.

For instance, Gassner says she prioritizes her day by zeroing in on upcoming deadlines. Her autistic son, on the other hand, thrives by maintaining extreme organization. The commonality between him and her? “There’s not significant balance,” she says.

Both autism and ADHD also affect development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” On the other hand, the CDC classifies ADHD as a “neurodevelopmental disorder” that can lead to difficulty paying attention, struggles to control impulsive behavior and overactivity. For both conditions, pinpointing the underlying reasons why a child is struggling with, say, paying attention or appropriately connecting with their peers is a key part of helping them succeed.

Researchers are still investigating what causes autism and ADHD. Genetics play a role in many cases of both conditions, and some studies even suggest that certain genes overlap between the two. And for both conditions, boys are more likely to get a diagnosis, but some experts say this is due to autism and ADHD in girls going underrecognized.

Getting Evaluated for ADHD and Autism

If Gassner were “the queen of everything,” she says she would want to see every child’s development professionally evaluated. In addition to providing insights about whether your child is autistic, has ADHD, or is neurodiverse in both ways, these assessments can help doctors unearth details such as whether your child has a learning disability or is “gifted,” she notes. This information can then be used to decide what, if any, additional supports, accommodations, or treatments your child might benefit from. But Gassner especially recommends having your child’s development evaluated by a specialized pediatrician if you’re seeing signs of certain differences.

Such evaluations can also be done through public school systems, but those are sometimes more limited in scope, Gassner says. However, if you opt to do the initial evaluation through the school, afterward you can request a private evaluation if you think the first one was inadequate. “Even if you can’t afford to pay for it, the school has to provide it,” she says. If your kid is 3-years-old or younger, you can still get help through the public school system or the public health department.

“When in doubt, check it out,” she says. “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Then, once your child’s condition — if any — has been correctly identified, you and the other adults in their life can find a game plan for continuing to help them thrive.