ADHD and ASD: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of having both.

When you think of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, what comes to mind? For most people, the two are thought of as completely separate conditions. However, there is a lot of overlap between the two disorders, which can make it difficult to tell them apart. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to be misdiagnosed with one or the other because of this overlap. If you’re wondering, it is ASD that is often misdiagnosed as ADHD more than the other way around.

But even though they share quite a few similarities, ADHD and ASD are still two different conditions. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at both disorders and discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of having both.

What is ADHD and what are the symptoms?

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that is characterized by problems with focus, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. It is one of the most common mental disorders in children and, contrarily to popular belief, will continue into adulthood. You do not grow out of ADHD. Symptoms include difficulty staying on task, impatience, fidgeting, talking excessively, interrupting others, and difficulty waiting their turn.

These symptoms can make everyday tasks incredibly difficult. They vary in intensity, depending on a lot of factors (lack of sleep, hunger, current mood…), but also because ADHD has a bit of a spectrum like ASD.

What is ASD and what are the symptoms?

ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a condition that is characterized by difficulty with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. It is a spectrum disorder which means that the symptoms can range from very mild to very severe. There is no one-size-fits-all description of ASD because every person who has it experiences it differently.

Some common symptoms include being aloof or uninterested in socializing with others, having problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, obsessively repeating certain behaviors or movements, and difficulty adjusting to changes in routine. They say that ASD presents with “limited interests and activities” but I know that we can have such strong feelings about an interest that this symptom is a bit of a grey area. However, it is true that if we don’t have interest in a certain thing, we don’t really care at all. Same goes for activities.

How do ADHD and ASD differ

Even though ADHD and ASD are both conditions that can cause a lot of difficulty in a person’s life, they are not the same thing. The main difference between the two is that ASD is a condition that is characterized by social interaction and communication difficulties, while ADHD is a condition that is characterized by problems with focus, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.

Another difference between the two is that the symptoms of ADHD are more about how the brain perceives tasks or time, while the symptoms of ASD are often much more social. People with ADHD often have trouble staying on task, are impatient, fidgety, and talk excessively. People with ASD often have trouble interacting with others, communicating verbally and nonverbally, and adjusting to changes in routine.

Having both ADHD and ASD can be difficult because you have to deal with the challenges of both conditions. You may find yourself struggling to stay on task because of your ADHD symptoms and struggling to interact with others because of your ASD symptoms. It can be a lot to handle at once.

What are the pain points of having both ADHD and ASD

With ADHD and ASD colliding, you can be certain that there will be some dissonance. While not every symptom is mutually exclusive, most people will have one over the other. If you have both ADHD and Autism, you will most likely be able to take a look at my list and point out which of the opposite symptoms is yours!

Struggling to be on timeGetting upset if someone is late
Forgetting steps in plansNeeding to execute the plan to the letter
Impulse purchases for a new hyperfixation (Shiny!!)Lots of research for a new hyperfixation
Spontaneous plans are okSpontaneous plans are upsetting
Struggling to organizeStrong need for order in their life
NEW HYPERFIXATION JUST DROPPEDLong-term special interests
Trying new food? Yes please!Possible taste or texture issues with foods
Shiny! New experiences chaserPredictable is best (think re-watching shows, routine)
Missing details or making mistakes on boring tasksWill notice small details and mistakes made by others
While not mutually exclusive, most of these are quite opposite to each other.

It is honestly super fun to look at that table and check which combination is yours. There is no rule that says what will affect you when you have both ASD and ADHD, and having so many possibilities means that we all have our own little brand of it. So far, I’ve never met two people with ASD and ADHD with the same exact combinations of traits!

But wait, there’s more!

Some symptoms are overlapping so hard, they end up compounding on each other! Sensory overload issues? Auditory processing disorder? Hyperfixating and wanting to talk about it for hours? It’s all adding up, baby! Have fun with that roller-coaster.

pictured: ASD and ADHD - woman with big headphones and sunglasses with a shirt that says "no sound thank you" and a muted sound icon
Sensory overload can be mitigated a bit with noise cancelling headphones.

the challenges of having both disorders

Did you know that both autism and ADHD are thought to have genetic components? In other words, both would be hereditary. It has not been entirely proven yet, but the link has been made. For both disabilities, research has shown solid proof of genetic differences, which can only be acquired through the parents.


In the case of ADHD, it is a fairly recent discovery that genetics play a role in how well one of our dopamine receptors works. That receptor, called DRD4 is also located in the prefrontal cortex, which means it could also affect behavioral control. Lastly, the DRD4 receptor has been linked to a behavioral pattern that is often seen in ADHD: novelty-seeking.

As for autism, it has been established as a hereditary condition for a bit longer than ADHD has. As per the research, a common trait observed in autism is mutations in chromosome 15. Medical imagery has shown that autism comes with a lesser blood flow to the amygdala, which has a lot to do with processing facial expression cues (especially anything expressed through the eyes). The autistic brain has been observed to try to make up for the reduced performance of the amygdala by leaning on the temporal lobe. It is not made for that, of course; it is better know for verbal processing, but it tries its best to compensate.

That amygdala’s got a lot to answer for

Autism is often tied to anxiety, and with good reason; the amygdala is tasked to process intense emotions, especially negative ones, including fear. ADHD’s behavioral issues are linked to a disconnect between the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex, which support decision making and reward reinforcement. Remember that fun thing about “reward yourself for a habit so it makes the habit stronger? Yeah, me neither. Because we don’t have that.

Thanks for nothing, amygdala

According to the uses of it + how one acts without it, I’m ready to theorize that the amygdala has something to do about our zoning out. Research in both animals and humans who suffered from accidents that affected the amygdala show that without the amygdala’s processing of intense emotions, there is no processing at all. It doesn’t get picked up and there is no back up to it. In such cases, research shows an eerie calmness and a lack of fear entirely, as well as an overall lack of response.

ASD AND ADHD: Psychology is fun

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