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Autism and ADHD


Posted by Andy Shih, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs for Autism Speaks
 
As researchers and parents, we’ve long known that autism often travels with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). What we haven’t known before is why that is. Also, few studies have examined how ADHD affects the quality of life of those with autism.
 
In the past month, two studies have come together to help connect our understanding of autism with behavioral issues such as hyperactivity and attention deficit. The first study looked at gene changes in ADHD and autism. The second looked at how frequently parents see the symptoms of ADHD in their children and how seriously these symptoms affect their children’s daily functioning and quality of life.
 
The upshot of the first study is that the genetic changes seen in children with ADHD often involve the same genes that are associated with autism. This finding helps explain why children with autism often have ADHD symptoms. In other words, if these disorders share a genetic risk factor, it’s logical that they often occur in the same individuals. Genetic insights, in turn, can help scientists understand underlying causes and, so, may improve how we diagnose and treat these issues.
 
The second study, described in our science news section, helps clarify both how commonly children on the autism spectrum are affected by ADHD symptoms and documents how this affects their daily function and quality of life. Perhaps the most notable observation was that, even though over half of the children in the study had ADHD symptoms that worsened both daily function and quality of life, only about 1 in 10 was receiving medication to relieve such symptoms.
 
Clearly, we need more research on whether standard ADHD medications benefit children struggling with both autism and hyperactivity and attention deficits. However, studies have long shown that these medications improve the quality of life of many children with ADHD alone. Autism specialists such as Dan Coury, M.D., medical director of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN), recommend that parents discuss with their child’s physician whether a trial of such medications could be of benefit. (Dr. Coury co-authored the second study.)
 
On a deeper level, this research raises a question: Why is it, given the same genetic changes, some children develop autism alone, some develop autism and ADHD symptoms, and some develop neither—or something completely different?
 
I and other geneticists have seen how a given genetic change can alter normal development in various ways—if it does so at all. We have good evidence, for example, that outside influences affect how and whether autism develops in those who are genetically predisposed to it. These influences include a variety of stresses and exposures during critical periods of brain development—particularly in the womb and around the time of birth.
 
Still, by better understanding how altered genes produce symptoms—be they hyperactivity or social difficulties—we gain important insights into how to develop treatments that can improve the daily function and quality of life of those affected.
 
Ultimately there’s no substitute for working with your child’s physician and behavioral specialist to address your child’s behavioral challenges and needs within the context of your goals and values. To this end, the specialists at Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network have developed a medication decision aid—“Should My Child Take Medicine for Challenging Behavior?”—available for free download on our website. Please let us know what you think.
 
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