Can My Teen with Autism Spectrum Disorder Also Be Diagnosed with ADHD?

About 30% of teens on the autism spectrum have symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, but until recently, diagnostic guidelines suggested that they could only be diagnosed with one or the other. Since the introduction of the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) into the DSM that allows for variability in symptomology, psychologists are beginning to understand the prevalence of co-occurring disorders in teens with autism. Along with depression and anxiety, ADHD is one of the most common co-occurring disorders among teens with autism.

Is ADHD a Co-Occurring Problem or a Symptom of ASD?

For some teens who had previously been diagnosed with multiple other mental health struggles, recognizing that they might be on the spectrum narrows down the number of accurate diagnoses. However, it is still possible and not uncommon for a teen to be diagnosed with both autism and ADHD. Recent research also places ADHD into a “neurodevelopmental disorder” category rather than considering it a learning disability, which further explains the overlap in executive functioning issues between the disorders.

Psychologists had expressed concerns that autism-related inattentiveness was often confused with ADHD and that many children who would benefit from autism treatment were not getting the support they needed, as they may not have displayed obvious traits of autism across other categories. Reframing autism as a spectrum disorder has helped psychologists understand that there is not a single profile of someone with autism and that many people on the spectrum are vulnerable to other mental health struggles that aren’t necessarily directly related to ASD.

“Many kids with autism do have attention issues,” describes James Harris, director of developmental neuropsychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, who was part of the group who proposed changing the exclusionary rule. “However, the nature of the problem is different than in ADHD. It’s difficult to get the attention of children with ADHD or to keep them on task. In contrast, children with autism have trouble shifting attention away from their narrow range of interests.”

Overlap in Diagnostic Criteria

Approximately one per cent of schoolchildren have autism and two to three per cent are diagnosed with ADHD. Autism and ADHD are different developmental disorders, but they can have certain common symptoms. For example, children with autism may struggle with impulsivity and have problems in school and with social relations — and these same symptoms can be shared by children with ADHD. A common misunderstanding is that teens with autism usually also have ADHD. While this is common occurrence, sometimes signs of ADHD are better understood with a single diagnosis of autism. It all depends on the individual.

As the articles suggest, ADHD is not only often over-medicated, but is also sometimes used to describe symptoms that can be present with other mental disorders. Often, signs of inattentiveness and impulsivity are misdiagnosed as ADHD, which can be more easily identified than high-functioning autism. With these facts and numbers in mind, it is important for parents to find the proper treatment for their child that takes into account how these disorders interact and can be addressed similarly.  

Big Picture Approach for Co-Occurring Disorders

Psychologists have learned the hard way that treating different mental health issues and executive functioning issues individually rather than looking at how they intersect doesn’t teach teens how to apply the skills they’ve learned to other struggles that they face. Focusing on issues with attention may help improve focus in a classroom environment, but it doesn’t teach teens how to pay attention to what someone else is saying during a conversation or to pay attention to physical signs they might be anxious. 

At New Focus Academy, we focus on teaching core principles that guide our students to make healthier, more self-aware choices that will help them become more independent. We recognize that working with neurodiverse teens involves taking an equally diverse therapeutic approach where we continuously re-evaluate what level of support they might need. The heart of our program rests upon teaching teens to value community, respect, dedication, integrity, responsibility, and gratitude. These principles relate to the way they show up in relationships, in therapy, and in the greater community. 

In addition to learning practical life skills and social skills, internalizing these core principles helps teens with neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism and/or ADHD, helps teens make lasting changes in their lives by applying these skills to a variety of settings.

New Focus Academy Can Help 

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. While many teens with autism have tried to mask the symptoms they experience, identifying situations they struggle with helps us create personalized treatment plans to help them meet their personal goals. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interactions, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.

For more information, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!