Autism and ADHD: Three Keys to Better Understanding

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of “Parenting Without Panic.” Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

It is amazing how much we have learned about neurodiversity over the past 25 years. When we discovered my daughter Rachel was Autistic at age 3 in 1999, that single diagnosis didn’t fully describe how her brain worked. Much later, and years after her younger brother Daniel was diagnosed at age 5 with ADHD, we recognized that Rachel also had ADHD as well as autism.

This understanding was critical to our family, and both of my children wanted me to share what these neurotypes look like in their lives. For both Daniel and Rachel, their ability to intensely focus on topics they love has been helpful for choosing what to study, where to look for work, and how to connect with others who share their deep interests. And because ADHD can make organization and time management difficult, they have also both experienced pronounced self-criticism and regret when they can’t meet their own expectations or miss important deadlines.

Having both Autistic and ADHD neurotypes can build tremendous talents while also creating a blend of challenges. Here are the top three things I wish people could understand, celebrate, and show empathy for when they themselves, or someone they know, holds both autism and ADHD traits.

1. Passions are a core part of being. Imagine the incredibly strong impulse to explore, create, learn about, or invest in the things that interest you. For Daniel and Rachel, that means they spend the majority of their time thinking and talking about the music, history, sports, games, books, and shows they love. Many of their friendships are based on shared interests, and they both feel deep delight when they get to focus their attention here. As a parent, I would try not to use these interests as a reward or consequence. The interests are like an extension of the person — and using them as a carrot or stick is akin to denying the significance of the role they fill in their lives. At the same time, we all have tasks we need to do and can’t spend 24 hours a day only doing things we feel passionate about. Things that are boring, new, involve too many steps, or are not structured enough require tremendous amounts of effort and energy. Make sure that tasks are broken down into manageable parts and that they are time limited so that frustration doesn’t overtake momentum to complete the work.

2. Recognize both the extraordinary benefits and the limitations of strategies. There are resources that can help in challenging areas in daily life, but understand that there may be an ebb and flow with success. Both Rachel and Daniel have had many strategies shared with them throughout their lives. Sticking with these various strategies, like setting reminders, can sometimes work for a while, but become less effective over time, or may not work in different contexts. For Daniel, using a paper calendar has been life changing as a way to manage his time. He tracks everything he has to do in one place and checks it off as he completes items. For Rachel, her AANE LifeMAP coach has been a critically important person who helps her set specific goals, figure out how and when she’ll complete tasks, and stay accountable to herself and others. It’s wonderful to see the positive difference the right type and amount of help can make in their belief that they are competent and capable. 

3. Falling short is inevitable. Focus on moving forward rather than guilt. Both Rachel and Daniel have shared the deep regret, disappointment, and sense of failure they experience when they can’t live up to their own ideals or follow through on external commitments. Daniel recently lost sight of a major project for his Master’s degree and called me in tears as he shared the shame he felt. He beats himself up so much when he makes a mistake, and I wish I could alleviate some of that pain. The best I can do is listen and let him know he’s not alone. Sharing with them the mistakes I’ve made and how I recovered seems to help them see that everyone falls short of their expectations sometimes.

As our knowledge of neurodiversity grows even more, I hope we will continue to shift away from demanding a particular way of thinking and behaving and move towards an appreciation for the richness and vibrancy of diverse minds.

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