A couple months ago, I finally got my official ADHD diagnosis. It has been ten years since I was evaluated as a teenager and told that my grades were too high so they wouldn’t diagnosis. Since my diagnosis, I have tried a couple medications and have found one that has helped me tremendously.
I have been left to wonder what difference it might have made for me if they had figured this all out when I was younger. Where would I be now if I had been given this medication earlier? What would have happened if I was able to actually focus and stay on task in high school and college? But these musings are rather pointless as I cannot change the past but rather accept my present and be grateful that I’ve finally found something that helps.
Other questions have been swirling about as well. I am autistic and have ADHD. This new aspect of self-discovery has left me with many quandaries. Which symptoms are part of the autism and which are ADHD? Where is the overlap? How do the two play off and possibly exacerbate each other?
Let’s delve into these questions. Before we begin, I would like to assert that I am not a professional. The information here is based upon research I have done, personal experience, and the experiences of others that I have read.
ADHD is distinguished by impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity while autism is marked by social difficulties, repetitive motions, and communication differences. However, people with ADHD can display social difficulties, repetitive motions, and communication differences while autistic people can have difficulties with attention and impulsivity. Without a better understanding of an individual as well as each disorder, it can be challenging to tell them apart or to know if someone has one or both.
While ADHDers can display social difficulties, these social challenges often stem from attention and impulsivity issues. This is very different than social difficulties with autism. For autistics, social situations often feel like a game where everyone else already knows the rules and no one bothered to show you the handbook. While allistics (non-autistic people) usually have an innate understanding of social rules, autistic people often struggle to learn social rules and must learn them through instruction or focused observation. While an autistic person may learn the rules well enough to blend in, they still come from a place of rote learning rather than innate understanding. People with ADHD typically have the innate understanding of social rules but have difficulty following them due to impulsivity and inattention.
There are several aspects of each disorder that overlap. Both autism and ADHD can cause executive dysfunction. Executive function are the central processes that control a person’s ability to manage time, pay attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, and doing things based on experience. For people with executive dysfunction (also known as executive function deficit), any or all of these aspects may prove challenging. The executive function difficulties with autism can look a lot like ADHD symptoms as well as proving particularly challenging for people like myself who have both conditions.
The lines between ADHD and autism are hazy and blurred with a great deal of overlap in the presentation of both. The main distinguishing factors between ADHD and autism are social difficulties and the ways in which they can be helped. There are no medications that can treat autism. Medications may be used to mitigate symptoms of autism or other comorbid conditions, but there is nothing that can be taken to treat autism. However, there are a variety of medications that can help with ADHD.
Starting stimulants has given me a chance to start sorting out which traits I have are ADHD and which are from autism. The medication has vastly improved my quality of life by allowing me to regulate my focus and stay on task, things I great struggled with in the past. The alleviation of my ADHD symptoms has allowed me to look at what’s left and start to discern the origin of these different traits.
I still have sensory difficulties which can lead to overload and meltdowns or shutdowns. While I don’t stim with the same ferocity I once did, I still express myself through movement and need to stim to regulate my system. These are things that definitely fall under the autism category.
My social abilities have improved to an extent now that I am able to stay focused on conversations I am having. However, I still just don’t understand a lot of social world. I often struggle to understand others and miss a lot of social queues.
Thanks to the alleviation of my ADHD symptoms, I have been less stressed and anxious which has also made my autism symptoms easier to manage. While I still have nonverbal episodes, they are now less frequent and don’t last as long. Similarly, my meltdowns have also been much less frequent since starting medication. I find it amazing how much of a difference helping on aspect of my brain has helped everything else.
There are no clear cut, definitive lines between autism and ADHD. The two are often referred to as cousin disorders due to the significant overlap in symptomology. For those of us with both conditions, we wade through very murky waters to distinguish what is overlap and what belongs to one or the other. In the end, all of these traits make up our unique selves and make us who we are.