It can be impossible to tell where ADHD ends and where autism or anxiety begins. Even more difficult, is knowing where to start. Children do not come with an owner’s manual, nor do children know how to express why they act the way they do, especially if they have anxiety along with ADHD, and/or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Every child is unique in their own way, in saying that, there is no-one-size fits all. As a parent, you are the expert on knowing your child’s behavior and how they operate in certain circumstances, what’s working for them and what’s not working for them? This is crucial information needed to create a unique plan to understand their behaviors and help them thrive at home and school.
ADHD and ASD are neurodevelopmental disorders that impact similar brain functions. They are two very different conditions but have similar symptoms and common genetic links.
So what helps distinguish ADHD and ASD? They both have communication and a social
component but can be difficult to make accurate distinctions. Some experts in the field say
people shouldn’t focus solely on the diagnosis, but on the child’s functioning, that is impacting the child.
How is Anxiety Presented?
Anxiety is the brain’s essential internal alarm system that activates the fight, flight, or freeze.
Can you imagine a child with ADHD or ASD trying to figure out verbal instructions or multiple-step instructions? These children feel lost or confused which can lead to anxiety especially if they are singled out and called on by the teacher. These children may not know what the topic of discussion is. When a child feels anxious, it can make it hard for them to think clearly and can cause them to shut down increasing their stress response.
Children who experience anxiety feel vulnerable, in danger of being embarrassed, or feel they are in trouble for not responding. An accurate diagnosis requires a parent’s input based on experiences and observations of your child’s behaviors and struggles. By keeping a journal on your child’s behaviors and struggles and accomplishments can help with how best to help your child. Tantrums, meltdowns, noncompliance, and shutting down are outward signs or manifestations of problems that you can’t see. If you look at the behavior as a way of communication, and the behavior as the band-aide, then what is under that band-aide your child is trying to express?
For example. Your child throws a fit, ignores you, or hides in the closet when they are supposed to get dressed for school. So what is the real problem here? For you, you need to get out the door so you’re not late, but for your child, it could be school-related anxiety or transitioning from one activity to the next, or a sensory issue related to a tag on their close, or maybe your child didn’t sleep well and is tired.
Look at what your child’s behavior is communicating. Is it a fight reaction of tantrums or
meltdowns? Is it a flight reaction of noncompliance? Or freeze reaction, shutting down, hiding, or not talking?
As a parent, you need to be the detective so you can better understand what your child’s
behavior is telling you.
Be Aware and Document Social Challenges
● Does your child play alone
● Do they avoid other children or have a lack of interest in other children
● Does your child misbehave and say awkward things
● Have trouble interpreting social cues and distinguishing between teasing, playfulness,
OR could it be your child’s ADHD related inattention or hyper-focus that makes it difficult:
● For your child to cooperate
● Take turns with peers
● Play games with peers
● Fear of failure
● Or exclusion. This could make an anxious child from trying to join in on a game with
Children with ADHD, ASD, and anxiety tend to see things black and white and can’t see right
from wrong. Learning challenges can be signs of your child’s problem with paying attention,
focusing, or understanding multi-step instruction. Internal stress and anxiety about what is
coming next can cause your child to not pay attention and shut down. Some children with
ADHD or ASD could be daydreaming and think of a game they were playing or what they are going to do after school.
A child exhibiting a lack of interest at school can be a symptom of ADHD and weak executive functioning, which can impact a child’s ability to keep instructions in their head, follow multi-step directions, and get started without support. If a child has a fear of failure, they tend to give up before even trying. These children become frustrated and can show signs of noncompliance.
In order to determine the underlying causes, a parent should look for clues and signs to
determine if it’s anxiety causing the issues or symptoms of ADHD or ASD. If your child can
articulate their feelings and experiences, write down their response. Take note of when the
child felt the way they did and what happened just before a behavior. Ask the child’s teacher to keep an antecedent, behavior, consequence (ABC) chart so you can understand where your child is struggling.
For example, your child might find it hard to concentrate just before lunch, or transitions from outside to inside might be difficult for your child. Is it a struggle to get your child to take a bath? It could be because your child has difficulties transitioning from what they are doing or it could be a sensory issue.
Dig deep to see what your child’s behavior is communicating so a behavior plan can be tailored to meet your child’s specific needs.