Is It Autism or ADHD?

by Jay D. Tarnow, M.D.

Autism is a complex neuropsychological disorder, which is characterized by: (1) Problems communicating and relating to others, (2) A need to follow rigid routines, and (3) A need to engage in repetitive behaviors. While early controversies confused autism with childhood schizophrenia, at present, autism and other Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are recognized as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). PDD is a group of three conditions: Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

The prevalence of ASD is estimated up to 60 per 10,000 children and affects boys four times as often as girls. However, this number is constantly changing. There has been a major increase in the incidence of autism over the last 20 years. There are many differing opinions about why this may be. Environment, vaccines, mother's age, better diagnostic practice, more awareness, etc are all labeled as contributing factors. However, there are still many children with autistic traits that are never diagnosed clinically. ASD affects all races and nationalities, and no racial group is more or less affected.

Many autistic children are hyperactive and inattentive in most settings and hence most parents, teachers, and doctors may think, "This kid must have ADHD!. However, it is important to remember that almost any mental disorder can look like ADHD because many children under stress, suffering from learning problems, or depression may exhibit the same symptoms.

Diagnosing ASD requires interviews, observations, and evaluations and not medical testing. A pediatrician, a child psychiatrist, or a pediatric neurologist can complete this evaluation. Usually a child diagnosed with ASD does not receive an additional diagnosis of ADHD. However, there is no denying that children on the autism spectrum do benefit from the interventions that help ADHD children without autism. The best kind of treatment for children with ASD is behavioral therapy, which reinforces wanted behaviors and discourages unwanted ones. Teaching these children self-management techniques such as organizational skills can be very helpful. Self-management can manage symptoms that hinder social and academic success.

Our interdisciplinary staff of psychiatrists, psychologists, speech and language pathologist, and educational diagnostician, provide assessments of not only ASD, but also other related problems such as: Attentional based disorders

  • Dyslexia and language related learning difficulties
  • Study and organizational problems
  • Non-verbal learning disabilities
  • Emotional/Behavioral problems
  • Written Expression problems

At our center, our experienced clinicians also offer groups for children with PDD to improve their interpersonal functioning skills. We also offer QEEG-guided neurotherapy an efficacious non-medication treatment option for children with ASD because it can normalize the dysfunctional patterns, restore normal functioning, and in many cases eliminate the need to medicate the symptoms.