Autism and Co-occurring Conditions: ADHD

640_AutismAutism is a complex disorder with many facets. It affects several areas of an individual’s life, including communication, social interactions, motor difficulties and sensory functioning. The fact that most individuals with autism also suffer from other conditions as well further complicates things, and can make it difficult for parents to know where the autism ends and where other conditions begin.

For this ongoing series, Autism Daily Newscast will cover several of the most common conditions that tend to co-exist with autism. Not all individuals with autism suffer from these conditions, but most have at least one or two thrown in the mix. Co-occurring conditions can exacerbate symptoms of autism, and can also make it challenging for parents and medical professionals to reach a correct diagnosis. When co-occurring conditions are properly treated, the symptoms of autism often improve as well.

One of the most common co-occurring conditions is attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A study published in the online journal Autism found that 18 out of 62 children, ages 4 to 8, showed signs of ADHD along with autism. A previous study of slightly older children found that 31% had symptoms of both disorders. All of the children with both diagnosis were boys.

Some professionals argue that ADHD and autism are not separate disorders, and that they should be considered co-diagnosis in the May 2013 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Others disagree, citing differences between children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and those with an autism diagnosis. For parents of younger children, it is often difficult to tell the difference, but it’s important to get a proper diagnosis in order to determine the best possible treatment plan.

Symptoms of ADD and ADHD include inattention, impulsivity, tendency to get distracted, procrastination, difficulty finishing tasks, and sometimes, hyperactivity, which includes difficulty sitting still. ADHD and autism can look quite similar in toddlers and very young children, but differences emerge as the child matures.

A child with ADHD who does not suffer from autism will generally develop normal social skills, and they are less prone to anxiety, but the hyperactive behavior is unlikely to decrease without treatment. A child with autism is likely to display hyperactive, inattentive behaviors during early childhood, but these often fade as the child matures, though difficulties with social interactions become more apparent.

ADD and ADHD are often treated with stimulant medications, such as Ritalin. Non-medical interventions include homeopathic treatments, special diets, and behavioral therapy. Treating the symptoms of ADD and ADHD in children with autism can often help with the symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity.

While treating these symptoms won’t cure the core symptoms of autism, such as communication or difficulties with social interactions, they can help the child focus on therapies and interventions, which can lead to a better outcome. However, studies show that medication does not always work for children on the autism spectrum. It is important to discuss the benefits and risks of any treatment plans with your child’s doctor.

To read other articles in this series on autism and co-morbidity click here