Researchers have long established that dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, overlap. Unfortunately for struggling readers, this means that ADHD often is diagnosed when the real problem is dyslexia.
About 60 percent of all people with ADHD have a learning disorder, most commonly dyslexia, while the International Dyslexia Association estimates that 30 percent of all people with dyslexia also have ADHD.
The dyslexia-ADHD link goes deep, likely all the way into the genes. A recent study led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh found 42 specific genetic variants associated with dyslexia, many of which are also associated with ADHD. If ADHD is in your genes, dyslexia likely is as well.
And while dyslexia is still relatively obscure, ADHD is well known and commonly diagnosed. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that between 2106 and 2019, 9.8 percent of all children aged 13-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Further, schools are familiar with and responsive to ADHD. A 2014 survey reported that almost nine out of 10 children with ADHD “had received school support, which includes school accommodations and help in the classroom,” according to the CDC.
So, ADHD is often accompanied by dyslexia, and if someone with ADHD also has difficulty reading, you might think that the possibility of dyslexia would be immediately investigated. Sadly, you would be wrong.
Misreading the symptoms
“A lot of schools and school systems still don’t recognize dyslexia,” says Anne Kloth, cofounder of Reading Success Plus. “Everyone recognizes ADHD. So, when we get the kids with both, which is so common, they diagnose the one they’re familiar with, ADHD, when the real problem is dyslexia.”
Lawrence Kloth, the other cofounder of Reading Success Plus, says ADHD symptoms often mask dyslexia.
“Some people might not know the difference between ADHD and dyslexia,” he says, “and I don’t blame them, because you see them together so often it’s tough not to see it all as one thing.
“Say a child with reading difficulties has trouble focusing. Inability to focus is a classic symptom of ADHD, so right away the teacher or parent attributes the reading problem to ADHD. Well, focus could be part of the issue, but it’s not the whole issue. Maybe 30 percent is because of ADHD. We’re not addressing the other 70 percent, which is dyslexia.”
Dr. Roberto Oliviarda, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, wrote about “The Dyslexia and ADHD Connection” in ADDitute Magazine, which offers information and support for those living with ADHD.
“ADHD symptoms are exacerbated by dyslexia, and vice versa,” he wrote, “… so it is easy for a parent or a professional to mistake dyslexic symptoms for ADHD.”
He talked about a patient’s mother who had no idea her daughter had dyslexia. “We assumed that reading was tough because of the inattentive symptoms of ADHD,” she said. “Now we realize that it was dyslexia that was exacerbated by the ADHD.”
Kristin Kane, a family resource coordinator for the Virginia Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center, told her family’s story in a blog on Understood.org. Her son, who had struggled in school despite receiving an IEP in second grade, was diagnosed in fifth grade with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disorders. With that knowledge, “We’ve also learned to dig deeper and try to understand how and why some things work for him in school and some things don’t.”
She recounted an issue with her son daydreaming in class. “Sounds like ADHD, right? Maybe we need to figure out with his IEP team how to help him refocus.”
But she learned that the daydreaming was happening in a language arts class, which required silent reading with no audio accommodations. “OK then, the daydreaming might be related to his dyslexia,” she said. “Maybe we need to review the reading supports he’s getting in this classroom. Or could it be that the daydreaming is the result of both dyslexia and ADHD?”
While some symptoms of dyslexia and ADHD do overlap, the key signals of these disorders are very different.
“Dyslexia really has to do with reading and spelling, directionality, sequencing, things of that sort,” Lawrence says. “ADHD doesn’t do that. ADHD is more about focus, either the inability to focus, or hyperfocus, a fixation on something the child is interested in.
“The heart of dyslexia is very different from the heart of ADHD.”
To illustrate Lawrence’s point, here is a list of the top symptoms of dyslexia, as outlined by Susan Barton, the creator of the Barton Reading and Spelling System used at Reading Success Plus, and her list of the primary symptoms of ADHD. (Complete lists are at the RSP website.)
Warning signs of dyslexia
- Letter or number reversals.
- Slow, choppy, inaccurate reading.
- Terrible spelling.
- Difficulty remembering sight words or homonyms.
- Confusion between left vs. right, other problems with directionality.
Warning signs of ADHD
- Either constantly moving and fidgeting, or lethargic, mentally gone.
- Trouble staying focused on repetitive tasks, difficulty shifting attention.
- Easily distracted, whether it’s by a noise, a movement, or their own thoughts.
- Impulsiveness and impatience.
- Frequent mood swings.
Notice that these lists have nothing in common. Dyslexia and ADHD are two different things. If a child has difficulty reading, it’s clear where the diagnostic efforts should start.
“ADHD is not a reading disorder,” Lawrence stresses. “Yes, it could contribute to reading problems because the student gets bored and drifts mentally. But that’s not the majority factor. Dyslexia affects reading.”
What to do
Oliviarda offers advice for parents faced with the dyslexia-ADHD question. His key points:
- “It is essential” that anyone diagnosed with ADHD also be evaluated for dyslexia, and vice versa. The impact of dyslexia gets worse the longer it goes undiagnosed.
- Talk with an expert on dyslexia to get the proper interventions. “Schools are not always equipped to teach a dyslexic student,” he says. Make sure the intervention has been proven effective with dyslexic students, not just struggling (but non-dyslexic) readers.
- Treating ADHD can help overall focus, concentration, and working memory, but it will not cure dyslexia.
Dealing with multiple disorders isn’t easy for a parent or, certainly, a child. Even with two distinct, accurate diagnoses and two treatment plans, there always will be cloudy areas. Still, knowing your child has both ADHD and dyslexia puts you on a road that may be bumpy, but is headed in the right direction.
“Since being introduced to what it’s like to have a child with both ADHD and dyslexia, we’ve learned a lot,” Kane concluded in her blog. “We understand so much more now about the way our son thinks, learns and reacts to the world around him. We’ve also learned to dig deeper and try to understand how and why some things work for him in school and some things don’t. We’ve used that knowledge to improve his IEP and help him thrive in school.
“For our son, it can sometimes be hard to know where the ADHD ends and the dyslexia begins. But it’s still important to us to know he has both. By learning more and more about each of these learning and thinking differences, we can better support our son as a ‘whole child’ and as a student.”