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Is It ADHD or Dyslexia – or Both?
It's not always easy to tell whether ADHD or dyslexia is causing your child to be inattentive, distracted, and have difficulty with reading and writing or verbal instructions. In some cases, your child may have both conditions.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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For many children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the learning disorder dyslexia go hand-in-hand. As many as one in four children with ADHD also have dyslexia, while between 15 and 40 percent of children with dyslexia have ADHD. In those cases, children and their families must work to manage both conditions.
Distinguishing between ADHD and dyslexia may at first seem difficult, especially for a parent who has no experience with either disorder. Is your child skipping words when reading because he cannot read them or because he is just speeding ahead? With ADHD making headlines, your first thought might go toward attention problems rather than reading difficulties. But it is important to look at the whole picture when assessing your child’s performance.
“With ADHD there are more behavioral kinds of problems,” says special education expert Nancy Mather, PhD, associate professor in the department of special education, rehabilitation, and school psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Dyslexia is limited to reading and writing.”
Related: Is It ADHD — or Something Else?
Despite these distinctions, experts have observed a link between ADHD and dyslexia. “Similar areas of the brain are involved in both disorders,” explains Mather. They both appear to lead to problems with executive function, memory, and processing symbols quickly. Another similarity is that children with these disorders often have normal to high intelligence and high creativity, but are frustrated academically. What’s different is how these disorders play out — with dyslexia, it’s in terms of reading and writing difficulties, and with ADHD, it involves behavior.
ADHD and Dyslexia: Reaching a Diagnosis
The process of finding out what is causing your child’s problems could be lengthy. Because girls with ADHD tend to quietly tune out rather than act out, figuring out your child’s learning challenges could be a bit more difficult with a daughter.
“You need neuropsychological testing to tease that out,” says ADHD specialist Eugene Arnold, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Ohio State University in Sunbury.
In order to figure out which disorder your child has — or if it’s both — you will need:
- Teacher input.Talking to teachers about your child’s behavior in class and performance on schoolwork can be revealing. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, remembering and following verbal directions, or sitting still, but if they don’t have dyslexia, their ability to read and write is often just fine — indeed, many children with ADHD are avid readers. As they get older, they tend to do better with written instructions than verbal ones. On the other hand, children with dyslexia may try to avoid reading and writing, or mix up letters when learning to write, but do well with oral testing and comprehension.
- A learning ability evaluation.If you suspect a learning disability such as dyslexia, you have the right to ask for an evaluation through your public school system. This is also true for homeschooled children, points out Mather. Testing can help identify dyslexia.
- ADHD evaluation.In order to get an ADHD diagnosis and begin treatment, you will need a psychiatric assessment from an ADHD expert.
Succeeding With ADHD and Dyslexia
Just as the conditions are related but different, so are the solutions. The first step is to work with your child’s school.
“A lot of information is collected by the team at the school,” says Mather. The team may include a special education teacher or counselor, your child’s teachers, and any experts you want to include. If you suspect dyslexia, Mather advises including a dyslexia expert in team meetings. Based on test results, you and the team can develop a plan, usually called an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), for helping your child succeed in school.
Related: How Exercise Improves ADHD Symptoms
Children with ADHD and dyslexia often require:
- ADHD medication.With the right medical treatment, children with ADHD learn better. This is especially true for children who also have dyslexia — they need to be able to focus in order to learn how to read and write in a more intensive way.
- Specialized reading and writing training.If your school system has teachers trained in dyslexia on staff, your child may be able to get this additional help during the school day. However, many families find that their child requires tutoring after school. For children with ADHD, this can be especially challenging after a long day when ADHD medication may be wearing off. Talk to your doctor about using additional smaller doses of medication to keep your child’s attention focused until dinner time.
- Classroom accommodations.When you put together the classroom plan for your child with ADHD, you may need to include such things as taking breaks during long work periods, being able to get up and move around the classroom frequently, or being seated away from distractions. Be cautious about being overly reliant on audiobooks or verbal instruction for children with dyslexia, however. Mather points out that learning to read and write is still essential. Specialized tutoring may be necessary.
Though challenges are ahead, there is also great potential. With hard work and structure, children with ADHD and dyslexia can be successful in school.
Video: ADHD and Dyslexia: Why Do They So Often Co-Occur?
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