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What’s the Link Between ADHD and Dyslexia?

Published by : Claire

Our Co-founder Claire has been working on something pretty amazing, with Microsoft’s UK team.

Claire’s son, Zane, has Dyslexia. Thanks to Microsoft Learning Tools – a set of inclusive features that help children with reading, writing, maths, and communication – he’s getting accessible, practical support to aid his learning.

Find out more about the Microsoft X Pea collaboration

An estimated 870,000 school children in the UK have dyslexia – and only a fraction of those children have a diagnosis. But there’s another factor at play, one which could mask or even exacerbate the presentation of dyslexia: ADHD.

Dyslexia and ADHD are a common pair, with estimates of up to 40% comorbidity, with a “bidirectional relationship” (meaning that one affects the other).

Research has identified a strong genetic and cognitive overlap between ADHD and dyslexia, suggesting that both are neurologically linked – but nobody really knows what the answer is, or how these two conditions interplay with each other at the neurological level.

What we do know, however, is that the two are often present at the same time in children. We also know that ADHD is a superpower, and that dyslexia – although it poses some differences to those learning in a neurotypical way – has nothing to do with intellectual ability.

Together, they are a powerful mix.

So, how can parents and teachers harness these beautifully diverse, superpowered brains? Well, kids like Zane benefit from novel approaches to learning; approaches that work with their strengths, build their confidence, and help them feel proud of their progress.

Telling ADHD and dyslexia apart

They do share some common traits – like information-processing speed challenges, and both conditions are hereditary. The brains of people with ADHD and dyslexia are physically and chemically different from those who don’t have ADHD or dyslexia – but studies have yet to show if the same brain areas or neurotransmitters are affected in both cases.

The overlaps make it hard to tell ADHD and dyslexia apart at a glance; but it’s really important that they are, because a key difference between ADHD and dyslexia is that ADHD can impact the lives of those who have it profoundly and deeply, often in ways that dyslexia doesn’t.

Dyslexic children who don’t have ADHD tend only to have concentration and attention problems in reading and writing tasks – but generally not in other situations. Dyslexic children also tend to have better auditory processing than children with ADHD.

Having ADHD is not a guarantee of dyslexia, or vice-versa – but there is some significant overlap in both symptoms and risk factors.

Dyslexia is a learning difference. It makes language processing more difficult (both written and spoken), but it does not impact understanding. Some of the most famously intelligent people who’ve ever lived – from Steven Spielberg to Leonardo Da Vinci – are thought to have been dyslexic.

It is not an intellectual disability.

And neither is ADHD. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder; a hardwiring of the brain, which typically displays itself as affecting impulse control – but it also offers enhanced abilities in other areas, like creativity. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a deficiency of focus or concentration; kids with ADHD can become hyper-focused on activities that they find rewarding and stimulating.

No two people with ADHD, dyslexia, or both, are alike. The following symptoms are not universal – just some that are typically observed in both ADHD and dyslexia:

  • Difficulty with reading
  • Difficulty writing and spelling
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trouble focusing on tasks that are not stimulating
  • Effects on sleep
  • Impacted self-esteem and confidence

The effects of one can influence the other – and it can cause a cycle that’s difficult to break.

If this sounds familiar, or you’re on the path of discovery, you’ll no doubt be wondering how parents and teachers can support children with both ADHD and dyslexia to thrive.

So, here’s some help and resources to get you started.

Managing both conditions together

If your child has already been diagnosed with either ADHD or dyslexia, it’s vitally important to get them assessed for the other.

The longer dyslexia is left without intervention, the worse the outcome. But it’s never too late to act – if your child has ADHD or is awaiting assessment, ask to be considered for dyslexia assessment as soon as possible.

As with many things right now, schools are a bit of a pot-luck affair when it comes to support.

And it’s not their fault. In times when school funding and resources are being stretched to their limits, many are not fully equipped to meet the needs of children with ADHD, autism or indeed dyslexia – but thankfully, a greater awareness of neurodiversity is giving more children than ever a voice.

This awareness – which makes ADHD Awareness Month so important – is helping teachers and learning support recognise the signs earlier, and to develop strategies that are inclusive. But in order to get to that point, there needs to be a diagnosis.

And to any parents worried about what a diagnosis will do to your child’s confidence, please don’t be afraid of the label: in Claire’s piece, Here's Why I'm Happy My Son Has Been "Labelled" With ADHD, she describes how this actually has the opposite effect.

Also, remember that there’s no cure (as an aside, any so-called “therapies” suggesting that autism, ADHD or any other neurodivergence can be “cured” are incredibly dangerous in the long-term) – but there shouldn’t need to be a cure. All brains are wired uniquely, and all wirings are valid. These are not inferior brains we’re talking about; on the contrary, these are the brains of some of the world’s very brightest.

Children with dyslexia do not outgrow it. But if it is diagnosed early, they can learn to adapt – and do so with their self-esteem largely intact. And that brings us to “The Main Thing” to strive for: the preservation of the child’s self-esteem, and the nurturing of their confidence.

The biggest support you can give is emotional.

Yet with all this said, to manage both ADHD and dyslexia together, it’s suggested that ADHD be given the priority. That’s because helping children to live well and confidently with ADHD can help them in all areas of life – not just in education. It can also help to alleviate some of the symptoms of dyslexia, and contribute to a better overall outcome.

The majority of challenges will be faced at school. The British Dyslexia Association has helpful resources for teachers and for parents looking for support and strategies.

But with dyslexia, there are some simple strategies to try, like using audiobooks instead of reading, and typing instead of writing. There are apps that break learning down into games that lean into dyslexia, rather than trying to work around it.

And technology can go much, much further.

Watch Claire talk about Zane's experiences with Microsoft, and how Microsoft Learning Tools empower Zane to make learning and living with dyslexia a little easier:

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