When a school-aged child can’t focus on a task, parents may be quick to diagnose them with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Difficulty concentrating on homework? Sounds like ADHD. Fidgeting and difficulty sitting still? Again, sounds like ADHD. An inability to make or maintain eye contact? All are symptoms of ADHD.
These symptoms do match what most people understand about the common childhood behavior disorder. Even many doctors might naturally gravitate toward that diagnosis. However, ADHD might not be the only answer.
Before you settle on an ADHD diagnosis, it’s worth understanding how ADHD and autism, another common behavior disorder, can be easily confused.
ADHD is a common childhood behavioral disorder. Three types of ADHD exist:
- predominately hyperactive-impulsive
- predominately inattentive
- combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 9 percent of American children between the ages of 13 and 18 have ADHD. The average onset age is 7 years old. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with it than girls.
Another childhood condition, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), affects an increasing number of children. ASD is actually a group of complex neurological disorders. These disorders affect behavior, development, and communication. One in 68 American children has been diagnosed with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
Both disorders share many common symptoms. That’s why it’s not unusual for one condition to be mistaken for the other in the earliest stages.
Symptoms of ADHD include:
- being easily distracted
- frequently switching attention from one thing or task to another
- difficulty focusing
- difficulty concentrating and narrowing attention to one task
- growing bored quickly with tasks
- talking nonstop
- dashing around a room, jumping from object to object
- having trouble sitting still
- blurting out
- interrupting conversations or activities
- not showing concern for other people’s emotions or feelings
Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include:
- unresponsive to common stimuli
- impaired social interaction
- intense focus and concentration in a singular item
- withdrawn behaviors
- avoiding eye contact
- an inability to react to others’ emotions or feelings
- repetitive movement, such as rocking or twisting
- delayed developmental benchmarks
There may be a reason why symptoms of ADHD and autism can be difficult to parse. Both can occur at the same time. A doctor may decide only one of the disorders is primarily responsible for your child’s symptoms. Not every child can be so clearly diagnosed, however. In those cases, kids with either ADHD or autism may actually have both conditions.
One study in Pediatrics found that 18 percent of children with ADHD exhibited behavior traits of autism. Those children were also more impaired and had greater disability than children who did not exhibit autism traits. In other words, children with ADHD and autism symptoms were more likely to have substantial problems than children who only have one of the conditions.
According to the aforementioned Pediatrics study, many doctors were hesitant to diagnose one child with both ADHD and autism for many years. For that reason, very few medical studies have looked at the impact of the combination of conditions on children and adults.
For many years, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stated that the two conditions could not be diagnosed in the same person. However, in 2013, the Association changed its stance. In the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” (DSM-5), the APA states that the two conditions can co-occur. The APA notes that doctors should also consider the possibility of a separate disorder that might account for all of the behaviors.
The first step in helping your child get the proper treatment is getting a correct diagnosis. You may need to seek out a child behavior disorder specialist. A lot of pediatricians and general practitioners do not have the training to clearly understand the combination of symptoms. They may also miss another underlying condition that further complicates treatment plans.
The good news is, however, that managing the symptoms of ADHD can help your child manage the symptoms of autism, too. The behavioral techniques your child will learn may inevitably help lessen the symptoms of autism. That’s why finding the proper diagnosis and getting adequate treatment is so vital.