Autism and ADHD – Exploring the Relationship


Autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are distinct conditions that affect people’s behaviour and brain development. Both symptoms can often be difficult to distinguish from one another, and many people may receive a dual diagnosis. The theory that autism and ADHD are inextricably linked originates from behavioural similarities that have been seen, as well as the fact that they frequently co-occur.

According to the DSM-5, there are a few distinct indicators that ADHD and autism are present. For example, autism presents social communication deficits plus restricted and repetitive behaviours and ADHD people will show inattention or hyperactivity and impulsivity, or a mix of the two. However, both of these disorders can cause delays in language development, heightened sensory reactions, defiant behaviour, and issues with mood regulation. Both are also likely to manifest in childhood, with diagnoses of boys being more common.

Signs of Autism

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental impairment caused by differences in the brain. Extreme traits of autism were formally known as Asperger’s syndrome. People with autism may struggle with confined or repetitive activities or interests, as well as social communication and engagement. Additionally, people with autism may learn, move, or pay attention in various ways. It is crucial to remember that some individuals without autism may also experience some of these symptoms. However, these traits can make life very difficult for those with autism. 

Autism symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Certain signs and symptoms that may possibly indicate that a young child is displaying characteristics of autism, including the following: 

  • Not responding to their name
  • Failing to smile back when you smile at them
  • Becoming agitated if they do not like a particular taste, smell, or sound
  • Repetitive movements
  • Not chatting as much as other children of a similar age
  • Repeating the same words or phrases
  • Actively avoiding eye contact

In slightly older autistic children, the signs may be somewhat different. They include the following: 

  • An inability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings 
  • Having difficulty expressing their feelings 
  • Having to follow a strict daily routine and getting very upset if it changes
  • Showing a keen or obsessive interest in certain subjects or activities
  • Becoming upset easily if you ask them to do something
  • Limited social interactions, difficulty making friends or preferring to be on their own
  • Taking things very literally

Autism is more commonly found in boys, and often it can be challenging to spot in girls. If someone you know is showing signs of autism, you should speak to a healthcare professional who will also be able to carry out tests for a correct diagnosis.

Signs of ADHD

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder. The symptoms of ADHD share a few similarities with autism. However, a few features are unique to an ADHD diagnosis. Some of the symptoms of ADHD include: 

  • Displaying a short attention span, difficulty focusing, and being easily distracted
  • Often making careless mistakes such as errors in schoolwork 
  • Losing things easily and being forgetful about many things
  • An inability to stay on task, especially ones that are tedious or time-consuming
  • An inability to listen for any length of time or carry out instructions that have been given verbally
  • Constantly changing tasks or activities 
  • Struggling to organise tasks 

Further symptoms displaying hyperactivity and impulsiveness include: 

  • Constantly fidgeting and needing to move 
  • Increased physical movement
  • Excessive talking
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • An inability to wait their turn or queue for things 
  • Carrying out actions without thinking
  • Constantly interrupting conversations or not following social queues 
  • Having little or no sense of danger

ADHD symptoms can lead to severe issues in a child’s life, including poor academic performance, bad social contact with other kids and adults, and discipline issues. If you notice signs of ADHD, it is essential to address it as soon as possible so that it can be controlled as quickly as possible. Often signs of ADHD can be more difficult to spot in girls than in boys, more information on this can be found in our blog ADHD in Teenage Girls and Young Women.

The Relationship Between ADHD and Autism 

Autism and ADHD are both neurodevelopmental conditions that affect the functioning and development of the brain. Genetic factors can often play a role in the occurrence of both conditions. As a result, both disorders have an impact on the central nervous system, which is in charge of functions including speech, memory, social interaction, and the ability to focus on tasks. The two disorders frequently coexist, as suggested by a number of scientific investigations, although the exact reasons for this are still unknown.

ADHD and autism comprise executive functioning, which is in charge of impulse control, decision-making, time management, and the ability to focus and organise daily affairs. Social skills are also impacted for many young people. Although ADHD and autism are both possible in adults, they do not occur as frequently as they do in children. Although both are difficult to treat, they can both be maintained and managed, giving the correct treatment plans. 

Treating ADHD and Autism

Although both mental disorders are similar, the process of treatment can vary. If you or someone you know has one or both conditions, then it is important to discuss the treatment options with a medical professional who has experience in treating both conditions. 

Treating ADHD

Similar to other mental health conditions, treatment for ADHD will vary depending on age and severity of the condition, everyone will experience symptoms slightly differently. There are multiple methods used to treat ADHD; those who have ADHD will be prescribed ADHD medication or referred to take part in behavioural therapy and ADHD support. 

Treatment options for children with ADHD include: 

  • Behavioural therapies, including social skills training, CBT, Psychoeducation, and counselling 
  • Diet plans to control foods that may stimulate hyperactivity. 
  • Medication including – methylphenidate, lisdexamfetamine, dexamfetamine, atomoxetine, guanfacine. However, it is important to note that some medications may produce detrimental side effects, so it is essential to discuss medication options with a medical professional. 
  • Parent training can also be advantageous to help support a young person with ADHD.

Most often, a combination of both medication and therapy will be most effective in treating ADHD. Treatment for ADHD can help alleviate the symptoms and make the condition much less of a problem in daily life. 

Treating Autism 

Typically autism is more complex to treat than ADHD. Although autism can not be cured, elements of the symptoms can be controlled and maintained through various treatment options. After an autism diagnosis, treatment options are made available. These will include: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Early intervention can be supplied at the early stages of diagnosis
  • Educational and school-based therapies
  • Medication treatment 
  • Nutritional advice to help reduce adverse effects of stimulants 
  • Occupational therapy 
  • Behavioural management therapy

Advice can also be found via places such as The National Autistic Society for additional guidance and support. 

Supporting Someone With ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder

It is essential to be able to provide someone with autism and ADHD with as much support as possible. In order to do this it is highly important to gather as much information surrounding the conditions as you can so that you can have an in-depth understanding of autistic and ADHD behaviour, especially in children. Further tips for support also include:

  • Being mindful of your own behaviour and ensuring you are acting appropriately 
  • Praise the positive parts of their behaviour and positively encourage them as much as possible 
  • Encourage communication and listen to what they have to say 
  • Establish routines that may help them through daily life
  • Seek help and guidance from medical professionals 

Receiving an autism and ADHD diagnosis can be challenging. Gaining as much valuable knowledge as possible will be beneficial in helping a loved one through a dual diagnosis. 

Further reading can be found via our blog What Is ADHD Inattentive Type?

Contact Us 

At the Wave Clinic, we adopt a whole-person approach tailored to the specific needs of young people with a focus on full recovery and positive growth. We understand the struggles that some people can face when they receive a mental health diagnosis, and we are fully trained and equipped to provide the best quality treatment services. Contact us today to find out more. 

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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