What's the link between ADHD and autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have many overlapping characteristics, making it difficult for some children to get an accurate diagnosis.

Approximately 1 in 5 kids diagnosed as autistic had an earlier ADHD diagnosis, but there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between the two conditions. Learn more about the similarities and differences between autism and ADHD.

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Overlapping Characteristics Between Autism and ADHD

Both conditions seem to be caused by genetics and tend to run in families. They also have some similar characteristics, particularly ones that are usually attributed to ADHD. Some of these include:

  • Fidgeting or trouble settling down.
  • Impulsiveness.
  • Hyperfocus or extreme focus only on things of interest.
  • Social awkwardness.

However, both conditions have other tell-tale signs that distinguish them from one another.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is a specific type of neurodevelopmental condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 U.S. children are autistic.

One of the most recognizable signs of autism is delayed verbal communication in young children. Children may talk at much later ages and sometimes not at all. The disorder can reliably be diagnosed in children by age 2.

Other signs include:

  • Repetitive behavior.
  • Difficulty with social interactions.
  • High intelligence—despite the perception, nearly 40 percent of autistic people have above-average intelligence.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a very different type of condition. Although commonly pictured as the fidgeting, squirming kid full of energy, there are actually three types of ADHD:

  • Inattentive—Trouble paying attention and following directions, daydreaming, forgetfulness, tending to lose things.
  • Hyperactive-impulsive—Interrupting, trouble waiting their turn, squirming, excessive talking, excessive running or climbing.
  • Combined—Showing traits of both types.

Children and adults with ADHD tend to be highly creative and imaginative. This creativity is in part because of different “wiring” in the brain.

ADHD is diagnosed in about 10 percent of school-age kids. It also tends to run in families. Many adults don’t realize they have ADHD until their child receives a diagnosis, and they begin to recognize symptoms in themselves.

Learning disabilities are present in about half of kids with ADHD.

Because of the challenges in diagnosing the correct condition, it’s important to see a professional with experience. There are many ways to get help, from occupational therapy to at-home modifications, such as more routines or organization, to medications. The earlier you receive a diagnosis, the sooner you can begin finding ways to help your child or yourself adapt.

Learn more about Behavioral Health Services at UPMC.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on . This article was reviewed and updated for accuracy.

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