When a child exhibits difficulty focusing on schoolwork or tasks at home, problems sitting still, or a tendency to avoid eye contact, parents may consider the possibility that the child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is a common neurodevelopmental condition that often results in those types of symptoms. However, there is also a possibility that the child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and these conditions can sometimes overlap.
Description of Disorders
ADHD is generally first diagnosed around the age of 7 and is more common in boys than girls. The types of ADHD include hyperactive-impulsive, inattentive, and combination; the combined type is the most common. ASD includes a group of disorders that affect communication, development, and behavior. The condition has been diagnosed in 1 in 68 children, with boys more likely to be affected than girls.
Especially in the early stages of ADHD and ASD, it is very common for the disorders to be confused. However, ADHD and ASD have distinct symptoms that can help to distinguish the two disorders.
Children with ADHD may exhibit a variety of traits, such as:
- Becoming easily distracted
- Jumping from task to task
- Having trouble sitting still
- Growing bored quickly
- Having difficulty focusing
- Blurting out or talking excessively
- Exhibiting hyperactivity
- Interrupting frequently
Children with ASD commonly show the following characteristics:
- Lack of response to common stimuli
- Repetitive motion, like tapping or rocking
- Withdrawn behavior
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Difficulty with social interactions
- Developmental delays
Areas of Overlap
Both ADHD and ASD initially appear in childhood and are more frequently observed in boys. Both also involve the following traits:
- Language delays
- Defiant behavior
- Issues with emotional regulation
- Problems with planning
- Struggles with inhibiting behavior
- Heightened sensory responses
For years, there was a belief that the two conditions could not occur in the same person. However, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) changed its position on that. A review of co-occurrence showed that 30-50% of people with ASD also exhibit ADHD symptoms, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now state that 14% of individuals with ADHD are also diagnosed with ASD.
While the causes of the individual conditions or the co-occurrence are still unknown, one study found a rare gene that could be associated with both disorders. Research involving families and twins show that relatives of individuals with either disorder face a heightened possibility of having both. Another 2018 study in Sweden indicated that people with autism face an elevated risk of ADHD, as do their extended family members.
Recent studies show a truncating mutation in DNA that results in an incomplete protein that can potentially malfunction, leading to autism, ADHD, or both. An analysis of the DNA sequence showed that many of the mutations responsible for ASD and ADHD take place in the same genes.
While it may take many years to unlock the secrets involved in the occurrence of ASD and ADHD, the important issue now is recognizing that those with co-occurrence of these disorders require more support than those with either one separately. Contact WPS to find more information about diagnosing and supporting children with ASD and ADHD.