Dyslexia and ADHD: Which Is It or Is It Both?
Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP — Written by Rebecca Joy Stanborough, MFA on March 8, 2019
For the third time in 10 minutes, the teacher says, “Read.” The child picks up the book and tries again, but before long she’s off-task: fidgeting, wandering, distracted.
ADHD and dyslexia can co-exist. Although one disorder doesn’t cause the other, people who have one often have both.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 50 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD also have a learning disorder such as dyslexia.
In fact, their symptoms at times can be similar, making it hard to figure out what’s causing the behavior you’re seeing.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, ADHD and dyslexia can both cause people to be “dysfluent readers.” They leave out parts of what they’re reading. They get tired, frustrated, and distracted when they try to read. They may even act out or refuse to read.
ADHD and dyslexia both make it hard for people to understand what they’ve read, despite the fact that they’re quite intelligent and often very verbal.
When they write, their handwriting may be messy, and there are often problems with spelling. All of this can mean they struggle to live up to their academic or professional potential. And that sometimes leads to anxiety, lower self-esteem, and depression.
But while symptoms of ADHD and dyslexia overlap, the two conditions are different. They’re diagnosed and treated differently, so it’s important to understand each one separately.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is described as a chronic condition that makes it hard for people to focus on tasks that require them to organize, pay close attention, or follow through on instructions.
People with ADHD are also physically active to a degree that might be seen as inappropriate in some settings.
For example, a student with ADHD might shout out answers, wiggle, and interrupt other people in class. Students with ADHD aren’t always disruptive in class though.
ADHD might cause some kids not to perform well on long standardized tests, or they might not turn in long-term projects.
ADHD can also show up differently across the gender spectrum.
What ADHD looks like in adults
Because ADHD is a long-term condition, these symptoms can continue into adulthood. In fact, it’s estimated that 60 percent of children with ADHD become adults with ADHD.
In adulthood, symptoms might not be as obvious as they are in children. Adults with ADHD might have trouble focusing. They could be forgetful, restless, fatigued, or disorganized, and they might struggle with follow-through on complicated tasks.
Dyslexia is a reading disorder that varies in different people.
If you have dyslexia, you might have trouble pronouncing words when you see them in writing, even if you use the word in your everyday speech. That might be because your brain has trouble linking sounds to the letters on the page — something called phonemic awareness.
You might also have trouble recognizing or decoding whole words.
Researchers are learning more about how the brain processes written language, but the exact causes of dyslexia are not yet known. What is known is that reading requires several areas of the brain to work together.
In people without dyslexia, certain brain regions activate and interact when they’re reading. People with dyslexia activate different brain areas and use different neural pathways when they’re reading.
What dyslexia looks like in adults
Like ADHD, dyslexia is a lifelong problem. Adults with dyslexia may have gone undiagnosed at school and may mask the problem well at work, but they may still struggle with reading forms, manuals, and tests required for promotions and certifications.
They might also have difficulty with planning or short-term memory.
Readers with ADHD, on the other hand, don’t usually misread words. They might lose their place, or skip paragraphs or punctuation marks.
If your child has ADHD and dyslexia, it’s vital that you meet with the whole educational team — teachers, administrators, educational psychologists, counselors, behavior specialists, and reading specialists.
Your child has the right to an education that meets their needs.
In the United States, that means an individual educational plan (IEP), special testing, classroom accommodations, tutoring, intensive reading instruction, behavior plans, and other services that could make a big difference in school success.
Work with a reading intervention specialist
Studies show that the brain can adapt, and your reading ability can improve if you use interventions that target your decoding skills and your knowledge of the way sounds are made.
Consider all your treatment options for ADHD
The CDC says that behavior therapy, medication, and parent training are all important parts of treating children with ADHD.
Treat both conditions
A 2017 study showed that ADHD treatments and reading disorder treatments are both necessary if you’re going to see improvement in both conditions.
There’s some evidence that ADHD medicines might have a positive effect on reading by improving focus and memory.
Pick up a flute or a fiddle
Some studies have shown that regularly playing a musical instrument can help to synchronize parts of the brain affected by both ADHD and dyslexia.
Neither ADHD nor dyslexia can be cured, but both conditions can be treated independently.
ADHD can be treated with behavior therapy and medication, and dyslexia can be treated using a range of reading interventions that focus on decoding and articulation.
Lots of people who have ADHD also have dyslexia.
It can be hard to tell them apart because the symptoms — distraction, frustration, and reading difficulty — overlap to a large degree.
It’s important to talk to doctors and teachers as early as possible, because effective medical, psychological, and educational treatments do exist. Getting help for both conditions can make a big difference, not just in educational outcomes, but in long-term self-esteem for both kids and adults.
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Autism Plus Wandering by Beth Arky
The Uncompromising Child: Four Responses to Rigid Thinking by Eileen Devine
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The Power of Positive Attention by Katherine Martinelli
Stimming, therapeutic for autistic people, deserves acceptance by Steven KAapp
PSA: Stop Conflating Co-Occurring Conditions With Autism by Quincy Hansen
Metacognition: How Thinking About Thinking Can Help Kids / Rae Jacobson
Preschoolers and ADHD by Caroline Miller