Navigating the Intersection of ADHD and Dyslexia: Overlapping Symptoms and Unique Needs

ADHD and dyslexia are two distinct neurobehavioral conditions that can occur independently or together, often with overlapping symptoms. While both conditions can affect an individual’s ability to sustain attention, time management, following through on instructions, memory and speech, they impact different skills and brain functions.

ADHD occurs in 3-5% of children between the ages of 5 and 15, and studies suggest that 50-60% of children with ADHD have co-occuring learning differences, such as dyslexia. Typically, people with ADHD have difficulty concentrating, paying attention for long periods of time and retaining information.

Students with ADHD have a difficult time focusing in the classroom
Photo credit: Anastasia Shuraeva

Dyslexia, on the other hand, affects 10-20% of individuals, with varying levels of severity. Dyslexia affects children’s ability to recognise and manipulate the sounds of language. This translates into “symptoms” such as: difficulties decoding written text, poor reading comprehension, avoidance of reading, difficulties with spelling, lack of attention, or even fatigue. About 30% of children with dyslexia also show signs of ADHD.

If your child faces learning difficulties at school and starts showing a significant learning gap, it is important to discuss it with the educational team to understand the reasons for his/her challenges. A diagnosis of your child’s difficulties will make it possible to implement appropriate learning strategies that will be suitable for him/her.

ADHD and dyslexia: how does ADHD affect reading in children?

Children with ADHD and dyslexia have difficulties with writing and spelling. In both cases, parents are then often faced with their children’s refusal to learn to read. But why does ADHD impact reading skills?

Well, ADHD can impact reading fluency in multiple ways, making it more challenging for individuals to read quickly and accurately.

Firstly, individuals with ADHD may have difficulty sustaining their attention, which means they may have trouble focusing on the text for an extended period of time. This can make it challenging for them to stay engaged with the reading material, leading to slower reading and reduced comprehension.

Secondly, ADHD can impact working memory, which is the ability to hold information in your mind and use it to complete tasks. Reading fluency requires the ability to quickly and accurately recognize words, and this relies on efficient working memory. Individuals with ADHD may struggle with this aspect of reading, leading to slower and less fluent reading.

Finally, ADHD can also affect executive functioning skills, which are necessary for planning, organizing, and completing tasks. Reading requires the use of these skills to understand the structure of the text, make predictions about what might happen next, and summarize what has been read. Difficulties with executive functioning can make these tasks more challenging, leading to slower and less fluent reading.

This means that children with ADHD can benefit from reading intervention to improve their reading fluency. Reading interventions can provide targeted instruction and help children with ADHD improve their attention, working memory, and executive functioning skills, all of which can impact their reading ability.

Reading intervention programs may include strategies such as explicit instruction in phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These strategies are similar to those recommended for dyslexia. Additionally, interventions may involve accommodations, such as extra time for reading assignments or access to alternative reading materials, to help children with ADHD with homework or exams.

It is important to note that each child with ADHD is unique and may require different types of intervention or support to improve their reading fluency. Therefore, it is important to work with a qualified professional to develop a customized intervention plan that addresses the child’s specific needs and challenges.

How are ADHD and Dyslexia diagnosed?

Parents typically start considering an ADHD diagnosis when their child presents a heightened sense of hyperactivity, restlessness, excessive talking, difficulties listening, and inattention.

ADHD is diagnosed by qualified health professionals such as pediatricians or psychologists. In carrying out their diagnosis, they will take into account your child’s medical history, developmental history, and current symptoms. The health professional will conduct a physical examination as well as a series of individual interviews with you, your child and, potentially, other health professionals.

While ADHD is most often diagnosed by a mental health professional, dyslexia is diagnosed by an educational psychologist or qualified specialist dyslexia teacher or therapist.

For dyslexia, the signs that parents should watch out for are delayed speech development, difficulties reading, inconsistent spelling mistakes, and challenges remembering the letters of the alphabet. If your child presents these signs, you will be directed to take a screener, which you can do at home or at school, to determine whether dyslexia is likely enough that you should seek a diagnosis.

Getting a diagnosis for disorders such as dyslexia or ADHD usually involves costs. In the UK, both types of assessments cost between £500 – £800 if carried out privately. However, assessment costs for ADHD can be covered by the NHS with a referral from your child’s GP or school to receive a developmental assessment.

To address these challenges, accommodations and interventions can be effective in helping children with ADHD or dyslexia overcome their barriers and difficulties. Children with ADHD will benefit from behavioural therapy and accommodations such as extra time for exams or a quiet workspace. Conversely, children with dyslexia benefit from specialised reading instruction, and accommodations such as extra time and assistive technology such as text-to-speech devices for exams.

While the co-occurrence of ADHD and dyslexia can be challenging, it can also provide unique opportunities for individuals to develop their strengths and talents. With the right support and interventions, individuals can overcome their difficulties, gain confidence and achieve their full potential in their academic and professional lives.

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