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ADHD Symptoms in Children with Autism Are Common, Problematic and Likely Undertreated

September 18, 2011

The symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) create significant problems for over half of all children with autism and may be both under-recognized and under-treated by pediatricians. These findings—from Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN)—were presented Sunday at The Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics annual conference, in San Antonio, Texas.

Lead researchers Parul Vora, M.D., of Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio, and Darryn Sikora, Ph.D., of Oregon Health Sciences University, in Portland, included information on over 2,000 children seen at 14 of the ATN’s 17 autism treatment centers across North America.

“Over half of these children had symptoms of inattention, over half had hyperactivity, and over a third had symptoms that were in the high range on both of these scales,” comments ATN medical director Dan Coury, M.D., one of the study’s co-authors.

To gauge the impact of these symptoms on the affected children, the researchers analyzed parent responses to standardized quality of life and daily function questionnaires. The results showed that children with ASD compounded by ADHD symptoms scored significantly lower in all areas of life quality (social, communication, etc.) and functioning (school, physical, emotional, etc.) compared to children with ASD alone.

Yet only one in ten (11%) of these children and adolescents were receiving medical treatment for their ADHD when they came to an ATN center, the researchers found. A number of stimulant medications have proven benefit for children with ADHD alone, Dr. Coury notes.  “As such, parents of a child with both autism and ADHD symptoms may want to consider a trial of of medication to judge whether it is benefit to their child,” he says.

The decision to use medications to treat challenging behaviors is not an easy one, Dr. Coury emphasizes, and should include consideration of a family’s values and goals for their child. For guidance, parents may find benefit in the ATN’s new medical decision aid, Should My Child Take Medication for Challenging Behavior? available for free download on the ATN’s Tools You Can Use page.