The AuDHD Paradox

Meena Boppana, M.Ed.

Meena Boppana, M.Ed.

About the Author

Last year, at the age of 29, I was diagnosed with both autism and ADHD, sometimes referred to as “AuDHD.” These diagnoses have been revelatory in better understanding and working with my brain. Autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), though in some ways at odds, are commonly co-occurring. In fact, 50 to 70 percent of autistic individuals also have ADHD.  And yet, it sometimes feels as though these two neurotypes are vying for competing interests in my brain.

ADHD is marked by difficulty with regulating attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Stereotypically, this may look like someone who is always late or is unable to start tasks. However, I compensated for my attentional difficulties by keeping a relentlessly busy schedule. Moreover, I am capable of hyperfocusing on tasks that are interesting or urgent. It was the stuff I wasn’t focused on, such as housework, that was often neglected. As a result, my ADHD went unnoticed through my schooling and even after graduation while working as a teacher. 

Similarly, autistic stereotypes prevented me from seeking out a diagnosis sooner. From media and culture, I’d internalized that autism meant being a robotic man like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. I believed that I couldn’t be autistic because I felt too much and possessed an abundance of empathy. It took finding authentic and representative depictions of autism in the media, such as autistic actress Sue-Ann Pian’s performance in As We See It, to see my own experience reflected on screen. Even then, many of these traits, such as stimming by twirling a hair tie, were so subtle based on a lifetime of masking that they were hardly recognizable.

Together, autism and ADHD can feel contradictory. Both autism and ADHD bring sensory processing challenges. Like others on the spectrum, I have hypersensitive auditory processing and am easily overstimulated. And yet, my ADHD brain constantly craves stimulation! This has led me to engage in behaviors that feel good in the moment but aren’t serving me, such as scrolling through my TikTok feed when I’m already exhausted or attending a spin class with thumping music and strobe lights. It wasn’t until I received a diagnosis that I recognized the impact of sensory triggers on my mood: I was attracted to sensory stimuli, but they weren’t always good for me.

Socially, I am a chatterbox and can struggle to listen without interrupting as the result of hyperactivity. At the same time, I find socializing to be intensely draining for sensory reasons and need to be selective about my commitments. Since I often find myself at the center of conversations, I can give off the impression of ease. This masks difficulties with picking up on social cues in conversation.

The interplay of autism and ADHD led to both diagnoses going under the radar for decades. For the majority of my 20’s, like many other late-diagnosed neurodivergent folks, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. My lack of coping strategies resulted in frequent meltdowns and emotional distress. However, the bipolar diagnosis never seemed to fit, as my mood could change dramatically in a matter of hours, not weeks. Ultimately, I was only formally diagnosed with AuDHD following a self-diagnosis based on content on my TikTok newsfeed.

The impact of my AuDHD diagnosis has been profound. Armed with resources, I have begun the work of creating systems and routines that work for me. Due to difficulty with memory, planning, and regulating my emotions, I can’t always rely on my instincts in the moment. In this regard, my autistic brain has been enormously helpful in creating routines for everything from what to do with my dirty dishes to starting my day mindfully without looking at screens.

These days, managing my sensory needs can sometimes feel like a tightrope walk. Despite my hypersensitive hearing, there is also such a thing as too quiet. I’ve discovered that although I need to be shielded from outside distractions in order to focus, playing music with a high beat-per-minute count helps as well. Physical activity is essential for me because it fuels both my hyperactive brain and my sensory system at once. 

In addition to these strategies, I have also turned to stimulant medication. But here too, my unique neurodivergent mix presents challenges. For example, while coffee is often recommended for ADHDers to aid focus, I am hypersensitive to caffeine and can’t even make it through a cup of caffeinated tea without staying up all night! I am similarly sensitive to most psychiatric medications. It has been crucial to find the right medication and dosage with a knowledgeable provider. 

Ultimately, I have come to appreciate the power of my neurodivergent brain. I am capable of both creative, blue-sky thinking and of maintaining the routines to keep those impulses in check. Self-knowledge of my neurotype has been essential to caring for myself. With self-care and lots of lists, I’ve freed up my brain to be creative and, well, divergent. I can appreciate the creative energy that keeps me writing for hours in hyperfocus when I’ve previously set an alarm to remind me to eat.

Diagnosing AuDHD correctly is so important because it can look different from just autism or ADHD alone. More research is needed to understand this unique intersectional neurotype. Until then, I am passionate about finding community with other AuDHDers.

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