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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