What you need to know about ADHD & Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

ASD & ADHD are often comorbid conditions

Earlier this month, the American Psychiatric Association released a new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). The DSM is used by healthcare providers to diagnose mental health conditions. The new DSM (5) merges all of the autism subtypes into one umbrella diagnosis called “Autism Spectrum Disorder” or ASD.  ASD is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication abilities and repetitive behaviors. Autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger Syndrome are now all included in the new definition of ASD.

ADHD & ASD Symptoms Overlap

Many of the symptoms of ASD and ADHD overlap. In fact, many children are first thought to have ADHD because they have ADHD-like symptoms of difficulty settling down, social awkwardness, impulsivity and tendency to focus only on things that are of interest to them. The overlap of symptoms is an important reason to be sure that you consult a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, a child psychiatrist, or a psychologist with expertise in the autism spectrum if you suspect your child has ASD.

Coaching Students with ASD & ADHD

Parents whose children have received a dual diagnosis of ADHD and ASD often ask us if Edge coaching can help their children. Absolutely!

We asked Edge Coach, Dema Stout, to share some insight into how to think about coaching youth when ASD is a factor.

Edge: First off, thanks for sharing your expertise with our readers. What experience have you had in working with ASD individuals?

Dema: I have spent 20 years supporting autistic individuals and their families. In addition to receiving training required by Edge to become an ADHD coach, I have a Masters in Education, and am certified to teach Special Education. I also draw on the techniques of Relationship Development Intervention ® and the Nurtured Heart Approach ® to inform my coaching.

Edge: What are the top issues parents and ASD students want help with that are unique to ASD?

Dema: Making the leap from teen years to adulthood most frequently is the top concern. Many states’ Department of Rehabilitation Services are struggling to understand how to best support these students who have unique needs, but often average to above average intellectual competence. Students with ASD can be great contributors to the world, but they often have sensory needs that must be accommodated.

Coaching often focuses on building Executive Function skills like prioritizing or knowing when something is “good enough.”

Edge: Most coaches work by Skype or by phone. How is that received by ASD students?

Dema: Skype or the phone both work. Of the two, I prefer Skype, although most of the individuals I currently coach are local and we meet in person. I work with one young man whose communication by text is much more fluent than any other means. I have known of people sitting side by side, and starting the coaching relationship through messaging each other and responding in real time. Then as familiarity and trust develop, they move toward actual voice conversations. I am in favor of whatever works best with each individual.

Edge: How do coaches help get ASD teens ready to transition to independent adulthood?

Dema: Coaches can be effective guides for autistic teens when they understand ASD and patiently build a trusting relationship. In my experience, this trust relationship takes longer to develop with autistic clients.

A great first step is to explore sensory needs with the client, and determine ways to accommodate these needs with agreed upon techniques. For instance, one young man I know hated swimming pools. Once we figured out that the glare from the pool hurt his eyes he was able to get shaded goggles, and that made swimming enjoyable.

Coaches can help with self advocacy — determining strengths, exploring how special interests can lead to a job, developing accountability strategies…the list is nearly limitless. Like any teens, those with ASD want to separate from their parents, but they may lack self confidence and are reluctant to even think about going out on their own.  A coach can help the teen take small steps, being aware of anxiety and just where the teen’s “edge of competency” is…taking care not to fall over the edge.

Coaches can help teens develop problem solving strategies and how to plan. Difficulties with Executive Function skills are common and coaches can help the teen develop systems to compensate.

Edge: Anything else you’d like to add that would be helpful?

Dema: I’ve found Autistic adults want to be referred to as autistic…not “a person with autism or ASD.” So even though I’ve always used person first language (i.e. a person who has ADHD), I am adopting their preferred self-reference. I equate it to being somewhat like the feelings of deaf individuals: being Autistic is like being from a different culture.

Edge: Thanks so much Dema!

Dema Stout has a Masters degree in education and multiple coaching credentials. Dema coaches her clients to keep their vision for their whole lives in mind as they address the details to be successful now.  Dema’s daughter has ADHD and is a successful insurance professional. 

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3 Responses

  1. Kenyia

    Thank you so much for presenting an article about the commonalities of AD/HD and Autism. Our son has both. It was very difficult to find doctors who looked beyond symptoms to the root of the behavior and found Autism at the center of AD/HD. This is my first time using your parent sources. I am grateful and will visit often.

    A grateful mom.

    • Peggy Dolane

      Happy to hear it was helpful! Finding the right diagnosis can be tricky. Glad you are on the right path now. Let us know if you have any follow up questions our other topics you’s like to hear about.

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