Autism and ADHD: Navigating the Intersection

Over the past several years, the term "neurodivergent" has dramatically increased in use, both casually and in the medical field. Neurodivergent people have conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism that affect the way they think, behave, and interact with the world around them.

Many neurodivergent people do not simply have one singular condition. In fact, autism and ADHD co-occur so frequently that doctors often end up diagnosing one when evaluating someone for the other. These conditions' symptoms interlock and meld together, sharing symptoms like impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty focusing. Plus, both are developmental disorders, meaning symptoms start to manifest extremely early in life. However, the mechanisms through which these problems appear are very different between the two conditions. So what happens when someone has both? That is the point of researching and understanding the complex interplay between ADHD and autism.

Experts estimate that between 50% and 70% of autistic people also have ADHD. Individuals with both conditions struggle and excel in very different ways than neurotypical people or those who have only one of these issues. Understanding the interplay between these issues is important to fostering better support for neurodivergent people as a whole, as well as those with specific problems.


Understanding ADHD and autism: the basics

As mentioned previously, both ADHD and autism are developmental disorders and share many symptoms. However, there are some key differences.

Autism is now known as autism spectrum disorder. As a spectrum, autism affects each person in very different ways. From severity and type to age of development, symptoms rarely appear identically from one person to another. Those on the spectrum tend to struggle with social communication and find it difficult to process nonverbal cues. They may have atypical speech patterns like a flat affect or trouble choosing an appropriate volume. Learning and language disabilities are common. Additionally, repetitive behaviors and adherence to a routine are characteristic symptoms of autism.

ADHD is not a spectrum, though there is some symptom variation between individuals. Namely, people may have primarily inattentive symptoms, others primarily have hyperactive presentations, and others have a mix of both. At its core, ADHD involves difficulty focusing and general impulsive behaviors. Some describe people with ADHD as being constantly "on the go."

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Common symptoms: where autism and ADHD overlap

As neurodivergent and developmental disorders, autism and ADHD share a great many symptoms. Notably, both involve some form of speech difficulties. The most similar is that people with either condition may be prone to speaking excessively and far too quickly. Because those on the spectrum may not understand neurotypical speech patterns, they can be prone to interrupting others. This is also common in individuals with ADHD, though it is an impulsive behavior in these cases. Both conditions also involve trouble focusing, though autistic people can focus on singular or specific tasks—sometimes to the point of hyperfocus.

adhd and autism overlap in circles

Diagnosis challenges: differentiating between ADHD and autism

Diagnosing any neurodivergent condition can be a struggle. No blood tests or specific medical tests can diagnose either disorder. Instead, experts will use medical and family histories, behavioral observations, and standardized assessments in their diagnostic processes. In fact, many people cannot be clearly diagnosed. When ruling out one of the conditions, doctors may look for the repetitive behaviors and social issues of autism as they are the most blatant. Additionally, people who have both conditions are far more likely to have learning difficulties and poor social skills, allowing for a slightly easier diagnosis.

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Behavioral management strategies

Historically, many neurodivergent people have been referred to as "problem children" by family members and teachers, often due to their behavior being so different from neurotypical people. Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a common approach that helps neurodivergent people learn certain skills that allow them to adjust to various environments. Using positive reinforcement, individuals are able to learn management techniques to control the worst of their symptoms, improving their overall quality of life.

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The impact on family dynamics

Conditions like autism and ADHD can have a major impact on families, depending on their severity. Some people on the spectrum require a significant amount of care, which can introduce a significant amount of stress. Those who have ADHD may struggle to focus on household tasks or perform impulsive actions that also add stress. When the conditions co-occur, problems only multiply. This is why many treatment and management techniques will include the family in the process, allowing everyone to learn useful skills.

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Social skills training and development

One of the most beneficial treatment methods for individuals on the spectrum is social skills training. Essentially, this therapy uses positive reinforcement and a safe space to help teach autistic people how to approach social situations with neurotypical people. Social skills training, like many therapies, is an extremely personalized process, with experts tailoring their approach to the individual. Because neurodivergent people with both ADHD and autism also tend to have learning disabilities, many professionals will have a range of techniques to make learning far easier for them.

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The role of therapy: cognitive behavioral and others

Beyond ABA and social skills training, many other therapies exist to help neurodivergent people. Both ADHD and autism are often comorbid with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Options like cognitive behavioral therapy involve teaching patients to avoid negative thoughts, instead focusing on thought patterns that reduce stress and improve mood. This can dramatically reduce symptoms of a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, autism, and ADHD. Some people on the spectrum may need physical therapy to compensate for certain physical development issues.

Professional psychologist conducting a consultation

Neurodiversity: embracing different brain functioning

Though many neurodivergent people choose to seek treatment to help manage their symptoms, autism advocates want to express a very particular point. They believe that autism is a difference to be embraced and accommodated, but not cured. Embracing neurodiversity and encouraging neurodivergent people to share their experiences with the world allows them to introduce many unique interpretations and ideas. The benefits of this are impossible to quantify, but at a minimum, it gives a voice to a group that has long gone unheard.

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Adult life with autism and ADHD

Information on autism and ADHD was scarce and inaccurate for many years. Only recently, thanks to significant research advancements, have we truly begun to understand these conditions. As a result, many people did not receive any form of support until they were in adulthood—if they had at all. Adult life as a neurodivergent person looks very different in each case. Some people have developed strong management techniques and have no problems socially or in the workforce. Others continue to struggle without accommodation, with symptoms causing significant day-to-day stress. Many people have found unique life paths that fit their needs, often thanks to understanding friends and family.

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Coping mechanisms for daily life

Depending on the severity of each condition, several coping mechanisms can help neurodivergent people daily. People on the spectrum often have sensory issues. Wearing comfortable, familiar clothing is an easy way to limit the risk of sensory overload. Making time for recreation and leisure activities can improve mental health and reduce both autism and ADHD symptoms. Build a regular routine that feels comfortable to help stay on task and finish projects with less difficulty.

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Charlie, Heywise Staff

Article WriterCharlie, Heywise Staff

Charlie took to the written word like a fish takes to water. That is to say; they found themselves immersed in literature from before they were born. They've been known to tell their friends how they can still remember the passages their parents read to them when they were in utero - Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and a bit of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in to balance it out. Charlie keeps their feet wet, whether they're whipping up pithy one-liners to tease your brain or busy working on their second novel (the first one is available on Amazon under a pen name they refuse to disclose). You’re sure to get a kick out of giggle-worthy explanations and outrageous hints, and still come away feeling like you’ve just expanded your knowledge base.

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