Although there is high co-occurrence between ASD and ADHD, the nature of this co-occurrence remains unclear. Our study aimed to examine the underlying relationship between ASD and ADHD symptoms in a combined sample of children with a primary clinical diagnosis of ASD or ADHD.
Participants included children and youth (aged 3-20 years) with a clinical diagnosis of ASD (
n= 303) or ADHD ( n= 319) for a total of 622 participants. Parents of these children completed the social communication questionnaire (SCQ), a measure of autism symptoms, and the strengths and weaknesses of ADHD and normal behavior (SWAN) questionnaire, a measure of ADHD symptoms. A principal component analysis (PCA) was performed on combined SCQ and SWAN items, followed by a profile analysis comparing normalized component scores between diagnostic groups and gender. Results
PCA revealed a four-component solution (inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, social-communication, and restricted, repetitive, behaviors, and interests (RRBI)), with no overlap between SCQ and SWAN items in the components. Children with ASD had higher component scores in social-communication and RRBI than children with ADHD, while there was no difference in inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive scores between diagnostic groups. Males had higher scores than females in social-communication, RRBI, and hyperactivity/impulsivity components in each diagnostic group.
We did not formally assess children with ASD for ADHD using our research-criteria for ADHD, and vice versa. High rates of co-occurring ADHD in ASD, for example, may have inflated component scores in inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity. A disadvantage with using single informant-based reports (i.e., parent-rated questionnaires) is that ASD and ADHD symptoms may be difficult to distinguish by parents, and may be interpreted differently between parents and clinicians.
ASD and ADHD items loaded on separate components in our sample, suggesting that the measurement structure cannot explain the covariation between the two disorders in clinical samples. High levels of inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity were seen in both ASD and ADHD in our clinical sample. This supports the need for a dimensional framework that examines neurodevelopmental domains across traditional diagnostic boundaries. Females also had lower component scores across social-communication, RRBI, and hyperactivity/impulsivity than males, suggesting that there may be gender-specific phenotypes related to the two conditions.