Autism and ADHD
Updated: May 19, 2019
My original diagnosis that put me on the Autism Spectrum came when I was two. Because of a speech and motor delay, I was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). PDD-NOS is now essentially considered a milder form of autism.
However, at the time of my diagnosis, Autism Spectrum Disorder wasn't a thing. Even with a diagnosis of PDD-NOS, I wasn't considered to have autism.
When I was 10, due to social challenges that led to me breaking down in tears at school, I was taken to the joint practice of a psychiatrist and psychologist. The psychiatrist said "I've never seen anyone quite like Dan, but maybe ADHD medication will help."
The psychiatrist didn't know what to make of me because high-functioning autism was hardly known at all at the time. It had only become an official diagnosis a couple years before.
I was placed on ritalin, and then dexedrine when the ritalin didn't help my symptoms. Ultimately, neither helped, because I don't have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivty Disorder).
However, it is fairly common for Autism and ADHD to occur together. Almost every day I see accounts from parents about their children that have both. And Autism and ADHD both run in my family.
So, why do Autism and ADHD occur together so often?
Like autism, ADHD is a complex disorder. There is no single cause of it. There are a number of different things that can cause it, sometimes in combination with each other.
First, let's look at what allows the brain to focus and learn. It's a combination of three things: serotonin (the happy hormone that regulates mood), dopamine (the reward chemical), and norepinephrine (one of the fight-or-flight chemicals).
Image Credit: www.betterhelp.com
As you can see from the diagram above, the brain needs all three to be in balance in order for proper attention, focus, and learning to take place. If any of these are lacking, the process is hindered.
Research has found that three factors can be going on in ADHD:
Low serotonin, causing anxiety and issues with mood control
Low norepinephrine, leading to low impulse control
Glutamate/GABA imbalance, causing over-excitement
For reference on that last point, as I've talked about before in the my article on the stress response, glutamate is the main excitatory chemical that gets the body going, and GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is the main inhibitory chemical that calms the body down.
When GABA and glutamate are out of balance, focusing is difficult because the body is either a) too excited to focus (too much glutamate), or b) doesn't have enough nerve activity to focus (too much GABA).
The majority of ADHD medications available today treat the low norepinephrine, including the ones I was prescribed. In my case, it didn't help because norepinephrine tends be high in autism instead. I'll go into how to treat the other two factors later in this article.
So, what do Autism and ADHD have in common? As it turns out, there are common causes between the two.
Low serotonin As I've talked about before, serotonin tends to be low in the brain in autism, thanks to a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D tells the body whether or not to make the enzyme that makes serotonin from tryptophan. Supplementing vitamin D can bring serotonin levels back to normal
Glutamate/GABA imbalance In autism, this balance is also off, tending towards too much glutamate because of the stress response. Supplementing magnesium and vitamin B6 can help correct the imbalance. Magnesium can help calm down the stress response by helping the body eliminate the extra norepinephrine and adrenaline contributing to the stress response. Vitamin B6 can also help by turning the extra glutamate into GABA.
No simple answers
As I've come to find, there are no easy answers when treating both Autism and ADHD. They have some common factors, but like in the case of norepinephrine (high in autism but low in ADHD), there can be conflicting factors. I've given some foundation about what's going on in each of them, but if you're dealing with both, I highly recommend talking to a doctor about how best to treat them.
And as I always say, if you're interested in trying the supplements I've talked about, please talk to your doctor about dosages.