When you think of a child with ADHD and a child with autism, chances are, you’re imagining two different kids. This is likely because up until recently, diagnostic standards held the two conditions as mutually exclusive – a person either had ADHD or they had autism, but never both. The problem with this division is that many kids do have symptoms of both, prompting researchers to rethink the relationship between these two conditions.
In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) allowed for a simultaneous diagnosis of both ADHD and autism. This change makes sense – it’s estimated that up to 80% of children with autism also meet the requirements for an ADHD diagnosis. Conversely, up to 50% of kids with ADHD may also have autism.
While we still don’t have an answer to that question yet, researchers have found some interesting connections in the meantime. Some studies do support the idea that these two conditions share a single root, when looking at how they present throughout families.
One study found that firstborn children of women with ADHD were six times more likely to also have ADHD, and twice as likely to have autism than those born to mothers without ADHD. Furthermore, identical twins born to parents with autism have the highest risk of developing ADHD. This elevated ADHD risk can even be found when looking at extended family, such as cousins.
While these results suggest that there is some shared genetic connection between ADHD and autism, the findings aren’t conclusive. One recent study looked at “sporadic” ADHD in children, meaning no other relatives have the condition. The researchers found a lack of evidence to support the common root theory and instead suggests the origins of these two conditions could be notably different.
ADHD & Autism Symptoms
Complicating matters more, some of the behavioral symptoms of ADHD and autism can appear similar on the surface, but when it comes to brain activity, different processes may be occurring.
For example, not listening when spoken to is a trait seen in both ADHD and autism, yet this behavior could stem from differences in brain activity. A child with autism may have difficulty processing social cues, where a child with ADHD may struggle with impulsivity. Researchers suggest that understanding why a child is behaving a certain way is critical in helping us gain more insight on whether or not there is an overlap between these two conditions.
Rusting, Ricki. (2018, February 14). “Decoding the Overlap between Autism and ADHD.” Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/decoding-the-overlap-between-autism-and-adhd/
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