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ADHD & Asperger's: The Similarities & Differences

written by: Barbara Smith • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/5/2011

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s syndrome (AS) are very different disorders, although they often co-exist. This article will explore their similarities and differences which can create confusion when attempting to diagnose and provide treatment.

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    Although both disorders are neurologically based, ADHD symptoms center on difficulties focusing, forgetfulness, poor organization, procrastination and carelessness. Individuals with AS are primarily challenged by social, behavioral and communication impairments that impact abilities to develop age-appropriate peer relationships.

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    ADHD and Asperger Syndrome Symptoms Impact on Social Relationships

    Children with either ADHD, AS or both may present with behaviors that interfere with making friends. Children with both diagnoses may be impulsive, say inappropriate things, intrude on others and be impatient.

    Children with either syndrome may have high activity levels and difficulty slowing down in order to have a conversation. However, children with AS often give themselves sensory input by engaging in repetitive movements such as rocking, which is often viewed as socially inappropriate.

    Children with AS are challenged to understand nonverbal behaviors such as rolling one’s eyes and lack social or emotional reciprocity. For example they may only talk about themselves and lack interest in what others think. They often don’t understand what is socially inappropriate, resulting in inadvertently insulting or turning off others. Children with ADHD, on the other hand, may develop social awareness but simply can’t control their constant fidgeting, talking and need to be on the go.

    As a result children with either ADHD, Asperger's syndrome or both may develop anxiety, frustration and low self-esteem that impacts on their social relationships.

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    Impact of Sensory Processing Disorders on Children with ADHD and Asperger

    Many children who have ADHD and/or Asperger's syndrome also have a sensory processing disorder (SPD) that makes them sensitive to sensory stimuli such as flickering lights, smells, touch and sounds. This contributes to distractibility because they are so busy noticing background stimuli such as the wind blowing that they are unable to focus on completing the activity they started. Another symptom of SPD is poor body awareness. These children or adults may not realize that they are sitting too close to someone else; they may bump into others because they misjudge distance and they will easily break objects because they don't know how much force to use. These symptoms and behaviors impact relationships and academic performance.

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    Learning Disorders

    Children with AS and/or ADHD often have learning disabilities that require evaluation and special education support. According to Jeff Strong and Dr. Michael O. Flanagan, authors of AD/HD for Dummies, twenty percent of people with specific learning disorders (such as dyslexia or reading comprehension disorders) have ADHD and 40% of people with ADHD also have specific learning disorders.

    The student with AS often has good verbal language skills for concrete functional information, but poor time awareness, organizational skills and mental rigidity. In addition, students with ADHD, AS or both who also have a learning disability are often slow readers and struggle to keep up with the class. These students often benefit from smaller classrooms with teachers who understand their special learning and social needs.

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    ADHD and Asperger's: Conclusion

    The similarities between symptoms seen in children with the neurologically based disorders ADHD and AS center on social challenges, abilities to focus, sensory sensitivities and prevalence of learning disabilities. Both disorders often co-exist but a key difference between them is that those with ADHD do not have the severe communication deficits seen with children on the autism spectrum.

    Children with Asperger’s syndrome are on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. As such they are often extremely intelligent but face communication challenges that can impact relationships, self-advocacy and independence throughout their lives.

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    References

    Strong, J. and Flanagan, M.; AD/HD for Dummies; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc.; 2005.

    Shore, S and Rastelli, L. ;Understanding Autism for Dummies; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc.; 2006.

    Amen, D.; Healing ADD; New York, NY: Berkley Books; 2001.

    Richard, G. and Hoge, D.; The Source for Syndromes; East Moline, Illinois: Linguisystems; 1999.

    Kuhaneck, H. and Watling, R.; Autism: A comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach; Bethesda, MD;: AOTA Press; 2010.

    Ayres, J.; Sensory Integration and the Child; Los Angeles, CA; Western: Psychological Services; 2005.