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ADHD

How Are Autism and ADHD Connected?

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12 min

How Are Autism and ADHD Connected?

Do you live with ADHD or autism and experience more diverse symptoms than stated in the description of your mental health condition? Do you find yourself assuming that you have one more cognitive difference and looking for the answer to whether it’s possible?

If yes, you’re not alone. Can you imagine that approximately 50-70% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) display concurrent symptoms of ADHD? On the other hand, 20-50% of people with ADHD also meet criteria for ASD.

In this article, we’ll analyze autism and ADHD comorbidity, learn what AuDHD is, how it influences our daily lives, and discover treatment options.

Is ADHD on the Autism Spectrum?

As you see from the statistics above, ADHD and ASD are somehow connected. Moreover, people with one mental condition are more likely to have another than those who have neither ADHD nor autism.

A short prequel. By 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) stated that a person couldn’t have both diagnoses and considered them mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, the rate of comorbidity of ADHD in ASD ranged from 16% to 50%. Thus, the fifth edition of DSM recognized that one person can experience both mental conditions.

But is ADHD a form of autism?

Definitely not. Even though the overlap is relatively high, recent studies state that ADHD and ASD are distinct diagnoses. They can have similar symptoms but manifest differently and have different underlying neurobiological mechanisms.

Difficulties with diagnosing autism and ADHD together in adults

Because of a noticeable characteristic overlap, therapists can have difficulties identifying that a person has both diagnoses. Often, it may be challenging to notice from the spot that someone deals with more than only ADHD or ASD.

So, if you feel that your mental health condition doesn’t describe your experience comprehensively, it will be reasonable to ask your therapist to test you for autism and ADHD together. You’ll study your symptoms more attentively, as this combination can have diverse manifestations.

Note. Sometimes, high-functioning autism and ADHD in adults may have coexisting conditions like anxiety or depression. It’s vital to stay open with your therapist to avoid misunderstandings when identifying the diagnosis. 

What is AuDHD?

Let’s remember the main character of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper. He hyper-focuses on specific things, has repetitive behavior, struggles to understand social tendencies, and feels awkward communicating with others. These seem like autism and ADHD comorbidity symptoms, right?

Actually, there’s a term that describes autism and ADHD together. Its name is AuDHD.

What does AuDHD mean? It’s a dual diagnosis that applies to people who have both ADHD and ASD traits. AuDHD is an unofficial term that clinical settings don’t recognize formally. 

People living with AuDHD have medical documents that enlist two separate mental conditions. Nevertheless, the term is widely used to describe the interconnection between ADHD and autism.

What’s AuDHD in real life?

This cognitive difference manifests differently from person to person. At the same time, two main patterns remain the same: lack of concentration on something and displaying very intense emotions.

We’ll talk about other symptoms further, but now let’s clarify that all people dealing with AuDHD, whether women or men, need a highly personalized treatment approach. 

Navigating the complexities of this dual diagnosis may seem challenging. Because of this, people who are being treated for high-functioning autism and ADHD in adults need a specific approach and personalized plans to navigate their cognitive differences.

ADHD and Autism Overlap — Symptoms

Now, let’s focus on the symptoms that make the experiences of people with AuDHD diagnosis unique.

Disclaimer. Neither ADHD nor autism manifest as “weaker than usual” when a person has two mental conditions. You can still deal with autistic and ADHD symptoms even if you have AuDHD. This diagnosis doesn’t aim to stigmatize or minimize your experience but rather highlight the connection between two cognitive differences.

These are the main ADHD and autism comorbidity symptoms.

Inattention

You are in a constant rush to do something here and now. There’s no time to focus on one task; too many things are missing.

Have you had a classmate who always was finding it difficult to focus on the lessons and was too active talking and doing everything except studying? Although his academic performance might be rather high, it was challenging for him or her to spend hours listening to teachers.

Even though it might be an education problem, this classmate could also face ADHD, autism, or their overlap. Here are a few warning signs that allow therapists to recognize a diagnosis.

  • Excessive physical activity or talking
  • Urge to interrupt other people
  • Impatience or difficulty waiting for one’s turn
  • Inability to sit still, constant need to move
  • Restlessness

Noticing these symptoms, some parents consider their children fidgets and scold them for it. You might find it very hard to get through this, and it did not even help. ADHD and autism are diagnoses that need professional support, while the combination of ADHD & trauma can even worsen the symptoms. 

If you need extra support to address it, contact a therapist. Expert treatment will help you deal with the challenges in the present and traumatizing experiences from the past.

Impulsivity

You can feel an instant urge to buy a one-way ticket to San Francisco, get a tattoo, or spend all your salary on new clothes in less than 30 minutes.

While some of these ideas may sound fun, there’s a huge difference between being easygoing and making important decisions thoughtlessly. The borders are quite blurred. However, when the first trait brings you great memories, the second one could make you regret your actions.

Autism and ADHD overlap might influence you to act more aggressively, engage in dangerous behavior, and abruptly change or cancel plans. Additionally, there is a high likelihood of binge eating, substance misuse, impulsive decision-making, and other challenges.

Social communication difficulties

There are statistics that around 38% of children and adolescents with ADHD have social anxiety disorder (SAD). At the same time, 50% of people with ASD deal with SAD as well.

As you see, social interaction challenges are another key aspect of AuDHD’s meaning. If you have ADHD and autism comorbidity, it may be difficult for you to establish and maintain relationships with others.

The positive thing is that appropriate therapy and a personalized approach from a licensed expert can make your healing journey much simpler. SAD isn’t a mandatory accompaniment of AuDHD and isn’t a verdict. You can live life to the fullest with an AuDHD diagnosis.

Learning challenges

Do you remember the movie “Rain Man” with the main character Raymond Babbitt? The man faces significant learning challenges because he has autism and co-existing ADHD traits. 

Besides, AuDHD may cause him not only difficulties but also exceptional memory and proficiency in certain cognitive tasks, like counting and calculating.

The real situation is pretty similar. Autism and ADHD comorbidity makes it tough for people to learn, as most of us do. However, they can unlock their potential and achieve remarkable success with the proper support of their neurodevelopmental differences.

Stimming behaviors 

Does taking a 2-hour gym training sound simpler for you than sitting a 2-hour course at the university? If yes, it may be a symptom of the ADHD spectrum.

It feels like a constant urge to do something, no matter what. You need to move and can’t sit still longer than for a few minutes. 

What are stimming behaviors? Let’s look at some examples.

  • Swinging back and forth
  • Blinking repeatedly
  • Snapping fingers
  • Saying the same words or phrases repeatedly
  • Pulling hair
  • Rubbing or scratching the skin

Of course, it can be just a habit that has nothing in common with ADHD and autism comorbidity. It’s important to pay special attention to your mental health if you have other symptoms as well.

Sensory overload

Autism-connected sensitivity and ADHD-related impulsivity may lead to overstimulation and sensory overload.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed in a street with too many loud noises, lights, and people around? Or, maybe it’s difficult for you to visit concerts, airports, and other crowded places. That’s it!

Everyone can be overstimulated. Besides, people who deal with ADHD and autism overlap are more likely to experience these symptoms. This is why the film, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” about a 9-year-old boy with ASD, has this name.

A girl reading about autism and ADHD together in adults

Does Autism and ADHD Comorbidity Feel Similar to Everyone?

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC, states, “It is crucial to remember that ASD and ADHD come with their own strengths and superpowers, which can and should be recognized, utilized, and celebrated!”

While people living with AuDHD may deal with many symptoms of both mental health conditions, every case is unique. Like there are no similar snowflakes in the whole world, there are no identical situations either.

AuDHD in women and men is different. Moreover, everyone experiences various combinations of the traits above, and their intensities are also non-identical. And, of course, the manifestations of symptoms are entirely dissimilar to the ones in people who don’t face autism and ADHD comorbidity.

Interesting fact. Some unique combinations of AuDHD characteristics can even empower their owners. An interesting problem-solving approach is one of them.

People with ADHD or autism often have unique thinking styles, which allow them to deal with complex problems in creative ways. This can lead to innovative solutions that others might not consider.

Do you deal with ASD but feel that the traits above resonate with your experience? Maybe it will be reasonable to test your ADHD and autism comorbidity. Take an ADHD screening test and gain personalized insights into your cognitive traits and potential areas of overlap between these diagnoses.

AuDHD vs ADHD vs Autism

Are ADHD and autism similar? As I’ve stated above, they aren’t. However, considering all the symptoms described, you may get confused and misunderstand the characteristics of each mental health condition. 

It’s vital to note that people living with these diagnoses experience pretty different cognitive patterns and have non-identical behavior. So, let’s compare AuDHD vs ADHD vs ASD below.

AutismADHDAuDHD
Communication challenges, repeated behaviors, restricted interestsAttention issues, hyperactivity, impulsivityCombination of the mentioned symptoms
Selective attention, focused on specific interests, difficulty shifting focusConcentration problems, easily distracted but may experience ADHD hyperfixationAbility to focus on specific things but easily distracted
Interpret everything said literallyMay interrupt and talk a lotCompounded difficulties from two disorders
Adherence to routines and repetitive behaviorsPut more emphasis on impulsivityMay exhibit a combination of repetitive behaviors and impulsivity
Are strong in very specific areasOften quick thinkers, creative problem-solversCan have both ADHD and ASD traits
Prefer consistent and predictable lifestyleChoose variety, creativity, and constant changesWant to establish a routine, but may be rather impulsive

As you see, autism and ADHD together in adults may manifest quite differently and evoke various human emotions

Sometimes, AuDHD confuses even the person living with it, creating a cognitive dissonance between two polar desires. This is why professional help is highly important.

AuDHD Treatment Approaches

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC, comments, “The recent increase of ASD and ADHD diagnoses shines a light on the need for personalized approaches to those with neurodiversity. Seeking professional help can mitigate the amount of frustration and helplessness that often accompanies either diagnosis while creating a more effective system for you to succeed in your day-to-day life.”

Gone are the days when people with ASD or ADHD didn’t receive appropriate treatment and were forced to act like those without cognitive differences. Now, supporting your needs and providing actual healing is what you can get from a licensed expert.

Therapists create safe environments for people with autism and ADHD, where you don’t need to hide your actual feelings and states. Further, I provide the most widespread approaches to healing a combination of these diagnoses.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

This approach concentrates on changing destructive thoughts and behaviors to adaptive ones. If you experience ADHD burnout, feel exhausted from the traits of the mental health condition, or want to manage your emotions better, that’s it.

You’ll gradually learn to deal with autism and ADHD comorbidity symptoms and change thought patterns. It’s also possible to improve focus and manage impulsivity much better.

Executive function therapy (EFT) 

This approach focuses on improving cognitive skills and strengthening focus. For people with autism and ADHD, it will be helpful to improve time management, learn to be more organized and improve memory.

Choosing this approach as empowerment to CBT therapy may be the best option for people with AuDHD.

Social skills training

High-functioning autism and ADHD in adults can bring many challenges to daily life, especially in interpersonal interactions. Social skills training will help you establish strong long-term connections and communicate with others effectively. 

It’s important for people living with AuDHD that such therapy happens in a safe and supportive environment. This will help you enhance your ability to navigate social situations and develop meaningful relationships with others, contributing to a more fulfilling and connected life.

Occupational therapy

This is a helpful approach that allows people with autism and ADHD comorbidity to manage daily tasks more effectively. A therapist will help you cope with hypersensitivity and overcome overstimulation more easily. 

These things aim to improve your life in society and help you gain independence in all your daily activities. By addressing specific challenges related to sensory processing and organization, you will gain valuable skills to navigate environmental challenges with greater confidence.

Medication

Last but not least. Sometimes, autism and ADHD together manifest in symptoms that are difficult to manage without appropriate medication.

There’s nothing wrong or terrible with taking pills prescribed by a licensed professional. They aim to help people overcome accompanying issues and specific traits, ultimately enhancing their quality of life. It’s essential to work closely with a healthcare professional to find the right treatment approach tailored to individual needs.

Let’s Recap

It’s completely fine if you feel lost, overwhelmed, or confused by your current mental state. However, there’s always a way out of this situation.

Now you can confidently answer the question, “What is AuDHD?”, understand the connection between ADHD and autism, and know the symptoms of their combination.

If you related to the information stated in this article, take care of your mental health and visit a therapist to take an AuDHD test and screening. Professional treatment will help you deal with the symptoms and pave your way to a more fulfilling life.

Additionally, you can take Breeze’s well-being profile assessment to get personalized insights on how to improve your mental health and get happier no matter what diagnosis you have.

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC photo

Reviewed by Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC

Hannah is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She sees kids, teens, and adults...