When a child experiences communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and social delays, parents may understandably become confused about the source of the problems. The symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have many overlapping areas but are distinct neurodevelopmental disorders with their own characteristics and treatments. The fact that they are often co-occurrent just increases confusion for parents and complicates the process of diagnosis.
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ADHD vs. ASD
ADHD and ASD are becoming increasingly common and impact a significant percentage of families. 9.6% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 have ADHD, and 1 in 68 children in the United States have ASD. The conditions have a number of important similarities and differences.
ADHD and ASD affect similar brain functions and result in similar behaviors, including impulsivity, social awkwardness, trouble controlling emotions, and difficulty focusing on things with low interest levels. Scientists today believe the two disorders have a genetic component in common, which helps to explain why individuals with one condition are prone to having the other.
One of the key differences between autism and ADHD lies in the child’s methods of paying attention. Children with ADHD frequently dislike the process of concentrating and will avoid things that require focused attention. Autistic children have difficulty focusing on things they don’t care about, but will often fixate on things they enjoy.
Communication is another telling area that distinguishes between autism and ADHD. While both disorders result in difficulty interacting with others, autistic individuals have lower levels of social awareness. They frequently struggle to vocalize their feelings or thoughts. Children with autism also have trouble making and maintaining eye contact. In contrast, a child with ADHD may talk incessantly. They frequently attempt to monopolize conversations and are prone to interrupting others.
A third area of difference is in routines. Autistic children thrive on repetition and order, but children with ADHD generally get bored when variety is lacking.
When a parent suspects their child has ADHD or autism, they should begin with a conversation with the child’s pediatrician. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of either disorder cannot be accomplished with a single test, and the doctor is likely to refer the child to a specialist for additional observation and testing.
For an ADHD diagnosis, doctors watch for behavior patterns including distraction, abandonment of tasks, forgetfulness, difficulty taking turns, and physical issues like squirming or fidgeting. The complete diagnosis includes feedback from other individuals who provide care in different settings, including teachers and parents.
A diagnosis of autism includes a questionnaire about patterns of behavior over time, checklists, surveys, interviews, and professional observations. Doctors will use a process of elimination as they rule out other possible conditions and causes of existing symptoms.
The many similarities of ADHD and ASD symptoms can muddy the waters when trying for an accurate diagnosis, and the fact that these disorders are frequently co-existing makes it even more difficult. Careful observation of a child’s behavior and early consultation with a doctor is important to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. WPS can provide additional information and resources for these co-occurring neurodevelopmental conditions, like CARS™2 and ADHDT-2 to assist parents and caregivers in making informed decisions.