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Cognitive Similarities and Differences in Autism and ADHD


Attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) and autism spectrum (ASD) have often been viewed as very distinct and separate conditions. ASD manifests with symptoms of impaired communication, repetitive and restricted behaviors, limited interests, and social deficits. ADHD is indicated by inattention, impulsivity, and low inhibition.

But some research has suggested that there are similarities in the two conditions. Per Normann Anderson of the Division of Mental Health Care at the Innlandet Hospital Trust in Norway recently led a study exploring the differences and similarities in ADHD and ASD. Anderson focused on working memory, cognitive recall, and acquisition and chose to compare participants with ADHD and ASD and also those with ASD and comorbid attention deficits.

Anderson enrolled children ranging in age from 8 to 17 for his study. Seventy-nine participants had ADHD, 38 had high-functioning autism (HFA) and 50 had neither ADHD nor ASD and were used as controls (TDC). The children completed a task involving letter and number organization and also a verbal task. Anderson then separated the HFA children into groups of those with attention deficit (HFA+) or those with no attention deficits (HFA-).

He found that in contrast to his expectations, the ADHD children and HFA children performed the same on the working memory task. Anderson found no significant differences between the two groups on acquisition or recall, either. In sum, the HFA whole group and ADHD group performed equally on all tasks, but scored lower than the TDC group.

When he looked at HFA+ and HFA- participants, Anderson found that the children with HFA+ had more problems on working memory than the ADHD children and the HFA- participants. This was interesting, as ADHD has been shown to have a significant negative impact on working memory.

However, Anderson believes that this finding suggests that the combination of HFA and inattention could make the HFA+ children especially vulnerable to cognitive deficits that directly impact working memory. He added, “This may support the need for a more dimensional way of looking at diagnoses, symptoms and everyday functioning in children with HFA, and have implications for treatment.”

Andersen, P.N., Hovik, K.T., Skogli, E.W., Egeland, J., Øie, M. (2013). Symptoms of ADHD in children with high-functioning autism are related to impaired verbal working memory and verbal delayed recall. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64842. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064842

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  • Debbie R June 5th, 2013 at 3:55 AM #1

    This shows just how multi faceted and layered both of these disorders can be and is the proof that we need to emphasize that you can ‘t just look at the things on the surface to form the correct treatment plan.

    You have to look deeper, find out what drives this in this one unique patient, and that is when you will learn more about the best ways to manage this with the help of the patient and the family.

    Prescribing a one size fits all kind of approach to either of these disorders isn’t going to do anything that will help for either of these in the long run.

  • MIKE BEVAN June 5th, 2013 at 10:49 AM #2

    A good plan would be to see just what percentage of autistic kids have these attention deficits. Because they would need more care than those with only autism. Now if there is a label AUTISM present then the treatment and methods followed would be uniform. Are we actually looking at the finer details? Are we monitoring these autistic kids for attention deficits? If not, it is time we start doing so. Because really, as long as your problem isnt fully identified and targeted youre not going to experience the same recovery levels as that of others in the autistic group.

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