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ADHD and Learning Disorders, Autism and More

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

ADHD and Learning Disorder

students in classroomOver 50% of all children with ADHD also have a learning disorder. ADHD affects the ability to learn, across the board. In contrast, learning disorders are often quite specific such as reading, writing, or math. So, treating the symptoms of ADHD will not itself correct learning disorders. However, treating ADHD makes it possible to correct the learning disorder.

An inability to sustain attention resulting from ADHD, combined with a learning disorder, can make school very challenging and frustrating for children. Behavioral problems, such as fighting in the schoolyard or resisting authority, can impede a child's academic progress. Learning disorders require specific interventions, separate from the treatment of ADHD. When assessing the child's needs, all of these potential complications need to be taken into account.

ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a disorder of childhood. It is characterized by deficits in social skills (social interactions and social communication) and repetitive behaviors, activities, or interests. Combined, these two problems can severely limit ordinary activities and interests. Intelligence is often impaired, and the ability to learn and utilize new information is markedly restricted. Behavioral symptoms may include hyperactivity, aggressiveness, impulsivity, a short attention span, and temper tantrums.

Similarities between ASD and ADHD can lead to dual diagnoses in early childhood. However, as the child matures, the differences become more distinct. One disorder may emerge as the true condition. For instance, a scheduled routine, organization, and structure can calm children with autism. In contrast, children with ADHD rarely calm down without medication. Meanwhile, children with ADHD typically improve their social skills as they mature; while children with autism typically do not.

ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder (formerly Sensory Integration Disorder)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder. It is likely inherited and present from birth. People with SPD have difficulty processing and interpreting sensory information received from the 5 senses. Because this information is misinterpreted, it affects many aspects of life. This includes: forming close relationships; enjoying recreational activities; and, performance of routine tasks necessary for school or work.

Sometimes people with SPD may experience an overwhelming drive for sensation and a high need for excitement. This driving force can cause hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. This may cause SPD children being mistakenly diagnosed with ADHD. For these SPD children, stimulant medication treatment will not result in the symptom improvement because the root cause is not being addressed. Again, sorting through the details of various alternative explanations for ADHD-like behaviors is a critically important part of the diagnostic process.

ADHD and Early Speech/Communication Problems

Early Speech/Communication problems are common in children with ADHD. ADHD symptoms can create difficulties in communication. This can include problems such as pronunciation, social communication problems, the use of vocabulary, and phonological understanding. However, these symptoms are also observed in people without ADHD. While the speech and communication problems may be similar to those of ADHD, other behaviors are dissimilar. For instance, children with speech or communication problems alone, do not demonstrate the hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive behaviors common to ADHD. A professional who evaluates a child must consider both possibilities.