Research is scarce on combined autism and ADHD in adults. However, growing clinical consensus guides approaches to evaluating, treating, and supporting people with both conditions.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are distinct conditions, but they can co-occur.

Both conditions are typically diagnosed in childhood — the average age of diagnosis for children is around 4 years for ASD and 7 years for ADHD. However, these conditions can persist into adulthood. ASD affects an estimated 2.2% of adults in the United States, and roughly 4.4% of adults have ADHD.

Read on to learn about the link between ASD and ADHD.

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ASD and ADHD are two of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. They are characterized by impairments in cognition, behavior, motor skill, and communication.

They commonly occur with other conditions, and they may occur together. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28–44% of people with ASD have ADHD. However, some literature suggests this rate may be closer to 70%.

For many people with ASD and ADHD, their symptoms are lifelong.

However, most research on the conditions is based almost exclusively on children, as this is the time when symptoms first emerge.

ADHD symptoms begin in childhood and may continue into adulthood. Some people may have fewer symptoms as they age, while others have significant symptoms that interfere with daily functioning.

Symptoms of ADHD in adults may include:

ASD symptoms may start in early infancy or childhood, and they can be lifelong. While some people have limited symptoms as adults, others may continue to have language and social difficulties, with behavioral and emotional problems worsening during adolescence.

Symptoms of ASD in adults may include:

  • difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling
  • anxiety about social situations
  • trouble maintaining friendships and preferring their own company
  • appearing blunt or uninterested to others
  • difficulty expressing feelings
  • taking things literally
  • developing specific routines and experiencing anxiety if it changes
  • having trouble understanding social rules
  • inability to keep eye contact
  • noticing details, patterns, sounds, or smells that other people do not
  • carefully planning activities before doing them
  • performing repetitive movements, such as rocking or hand flapping
  • fixating on particular objects or activities with intense focus
  • eating foods with certain textures or having specific food preferences

People with ASD experience difficulties with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Those with ADHD have challenges with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

A 2018 study indicates that ASD and ADHD share cognitive impairments in working memory, processing speed, and response inhibition.

People with either condition may have symptoms such as:

  • difficulty making decisions
  • poor time management skills
  • inability to focus or pay attention
  • poor organization
  • trouble reading social cues
  • emotional outbursts
  • a constant need to move
  • a tendency to crowd people’s personal space

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Symptoms of ASD and ADHD can be similar among males and females, but research suggests there can be some differences.

Evidence indicates that females with ASD could be better than males at studying their peers during social situations and imitating their behaviors to fit in. They may also be better at hiding their behaviors than males, which can make it challenging for healthcare professionals to make a diagnosis.

However, while females with ASD may be better at imitating and suppressing repetitive behaviors than males, they often still have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. Where externalizing difficulties may lead to aggression in males, internalizing problems may lead to anxiety and depression in females.

There are three ADHD subtypes. These include:

  • predominantly inattentive
  • predominately hyperactive/impulsive
  • combined inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive

Males most commonly have the hyperactive/impulsive subtype, causing them to be fidgety, always on the go, and disruptive. Females tend to exhibit the inattentive subtype, causing difficulties with attention to detail, organization, or sustained listening.

Research suggests females with ADHD may develop better coping strategies than males, masking their symptoms. This can lead to them remaining undiagnosed and untreated, resulting in ongoing difficulties.

No two people with a dual diagnosis of ASD and ADHD have the same symptoms. Adults with ASD should consider seeking specific support depending on the challenges they are facing.

Challenges might include anxiety, social isolation, or difficulty at work.

Support for adults with ASD may include the following:

  • counseling from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker
  • medications to reduce symptoms of other disorders, such as anxiety or depression
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • vocational rehabilitation
  • support groups

Treatment for adults with ADHD may include:

  • stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamine
  • other medications, such as atomoxetine (Strattera) and bupropion
  • CBT
  • therapy
  • support groups
  • social support

If an adult has symptoms of ASD and ADHD that continually affect their life, they should contact a doctor. A doctor can make a diagnosis and rule out other conditions.

Some people with either ASD or ADHD may not have received a diagnosis during childhood or have had a misdiagnosis of another disorder with similar symptoms.

ASD and ADHD are neurodevelopmental disorders. They are different conditions, but some people may have both.

Both conditions cause impairments in working memory, processing speed, and response inhibition. ASD causes difficulties with socializing and communicating, and repetitive behaviors, and ADHD results in challenges with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

After an adult receives a diagnosis, doctors will recommend the most suitable treatment options and management strategies depending on the severity of their symptoms and their particular circumstances.