A study from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that children with ADHD are more likely than their non-ADHD peers to manifest autistic traits. Doctor Joseph Biederman and his colleagues found that 18% of the children with ADHD had a “positive trait profile” for autism, compared with only 0.87% of children in the control group. Furthermore, the researchers found that the autistic traits in children with ADHD were more severe than those found in the non-ADHD children.

The research team analyzed 469 children aged six to 18 (with a mean age of 11.3) who were gathered through longitudinal, case-control family studies, or who were attending the pediatric medical clinic. They interviewed participants 12 and older with the Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and the Schizophrenia-Epidemiologic Version. For the children under 12, researchers interviewed participants’ mothers. The participants were also evaluated for social problems, anxiety, depression, and social disability, among other factors. Children were not excluded from the control group for having psychiatric disorders other than ADHD or autism.

The research showed that autistic traits were more prevalent in children with ADHD. The ADHD children with autistic traits had a significant likelihood of being impaired in psychopathology, interpersonal, school, family, or cognitive domains. Children with autistic traits also hate higher rates of ADHD-related symptoms like clumsiness, peer fighting, and rejection by peers when compared to children with ADHD who did not manifest any autistic traits. The children with ADHD and autistic traits also had higher rates of disruptive behaviors as well as mood, anxiety, and language disorders. The rate of social disability was highest in children with ADHD and autistic traits, followed by children with ADHD. It was lowest in the control group.

The authors admit that there are some methodological problems with the study. It is limited in that there was no comparison done between the study group and people diagnosed with autism, the results are not generalizable (99% of participants were white), and there is the potential for missed diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. However, the study does call attention to the significant overlap between “people being referred for evaluation and treatment of ADHD and those who have some features of autism.”

According to Doctor David Urion from Boston Children’s Hospital, this study “reinforces the long-standing idea that children referred for evaluation of ADHD have a more complex picture.”

This research is published in the journal Pediatrics.

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