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“Neurodivergence” is a popular media buzzword, but what does it really mean? Autism spectrum disorderand attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are two unique types of neurodivergence that, at the surface level, can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another.
Both autism and ADHD share symptoms of hyperactivity, attention issues, and executive function deficits. Both conditions have strengths like creativity, intelligence, and above-average ability in certain areas. To further complicate matters an individual can receive both an ADHD and autism diagnosis. Learn more about how to best assess and diagnose children who have one or both of these conditions.
Areas of Overlap Between Autism and ADHD
Children with ADHD and autism experience unique symptoms: Autism may affect social cognition more than ADHD does, while ADHD can cause more planning issues and hyperactivity. There are also a lot of overlapping symptoms. In fact, ADHD and autism are genetically linked, with many considering them “related.”
A child who has a parent with ADHD is two and a half times more likely to have autism, while siblings of children diagnosed with autism are over three times more likely to have ADHD. You may notice this familial trend in your students: Perhaps your student has autism, her brother has ADHD, and you suspect her father is also on the autism spectrum but has not been formally diagnosed.
Both autism and ADHD show changes in the brain associated with neurodivergent symptoms. These conditions link to differences in the brain’s amount of gray matter, signaling networks, and emotional functioning.
These differences are not the same physical areas. Kids with autism have more gray matter in the brain’s frontotemporal region, while kids with ADHD have less gray matter in the orbitofrontal region. The corpus callosum, the middle portion of the brain that connects the two hemispheres, is also involved in both conditions.
Autism and ADHD share certain symptomatology. You may notice that some of your students with autism act hyperactive, and some children with ADHD have trouble successfully interacting with their peers. Other shared symptoms can include the following:
- Showing frustration with activities that involve waiting or taking turns.
- Being overstimulated by activity, noise, or bright lights.
- Having a hard time “switching gears” from one task to another.
- Experiencing trouble sleeping (which can affect school performance and behavior).
- Having obsessive or repetitive behaviors.
- Not understanding what peers or teachers mean, especially when they are not being literal.
Why is it Important to Distinguish Autism From ADHD?
While there are significant areas of sameness, determining which condition a child has is important for treatment across the child’s lifespan. ADHD can often be managed with medication and classroom intervention, while a child with autism might need more help with social skills and understanding classroom expectations. Using the proper assessment can help in distinguishing the two. For example, WPS recommends the (ADHD-2) Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Test for ADHD and (CARS™2) Childhood Autism Rating Scale for ASD..
Choose High-Quality Assessment Materials from WPS
Being able to receive a diagnosis of autism and ADHD makes thorough evaluation essential for students who show signs of both. Learn to distinguish each condition with high-quality assessment materials from WPS and learn more about how to help students succeed to the best of their abilities.