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Understanding Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Autism, Aspergers, and ADHD Explained

Written by Dr. Farhan Shahzad and Sarah Davies-Robertson

Autism and ADHD has been in the news quite a lot lately. With celebrities speaking out about their recent diagnoses, and long waiting lists for tests, social media has been rife with posts on this hot topic.

Autism and Asperger’s are disorders that impact on social functioning. They affect both children and adults alike, but less research is done on the adult population. Those that have autism or Asperger’s may have heightened intellectual capabilities, especially as they can focus on tasks very well, and often zone in on one particular topic, however, they may have problems with social functioning. But, what exactly are Autism and Aspergers?

The following are some of the characteristics and signs and symptoms of someone with Autism:

Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorders

• Social Difficulties

• Expressive and Receptive Communication Difficulties

• Restricted Repertoire

• Sensory Processing Difficulties

• Theory of the Mind

• Executive Functioning Issues

• Obsessions/ Rituals

• Compulsive mannerisms

• Self-stimulatory behaviour

• Withdrawal

• Self-injury

• Aggression

There are a number of areas that are associated with difficulty when it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder and these areas include social life, being obsessive, black and white thinking, rigidity when it comes to schedule, not liking change, and difficulty regulating emotions.

Because individuals with autism may have sensory overloaded meltdowns, it is important that we are aware of some common stressors. These include unstructured time such as bus journeys, sensory overload such as chaos, noise, crowds and space, issues with organising and writing, and social events and changes. For this reason, it is best to make sure that the environment is as predictable as possible. Providing consistency and ensuring that the changes are voiced in advance can also be useful. You can reduce stressors by providing more enjoyable activities and decrease disliked and difficult tasks.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a common behavioural disorder. It stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Those with ADHD act without thinking, are hyperactive, and have trouble focusing. They may understand what is expected of them, but have trouble following through because they cannot sit still, pay attention, or focus on details.

Some of the signs and symptoms of ADHD include:

• Lack of attention

• Hyperactivity

• Inability to focus

• Poor concentration

• Interrupting people

• Disorganisation

• Risk taking behaviours

ADHD can be a comorbid disorder, and sometimes it presents with disorders such as Asperger’s or Autism. Comorbidity is characterised by two presenting disorders. When a person has more than two diagnosed disorders, we call that multimorbidity.

People with ADHD may be seen to "misbehave" because they have a different perception of a situation. They may also not know how to ask to get what they need. They may feel misunderstood, hungry, or feel the environment is too chaotic.

As you may have seen on social media, some people with ADHD and Autism diagnoses have been sharing how it is their superpower. While neurodiversity can come with some challenges in a non-neurodiverse world, those that have ADHD or Autism, when accepted and accommodated, do thrive and exceed expectations. In fact, many many people with these diagnoses do great things.


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