Autism and ADHD seem to be completely opposite, but it is common that they occur in the same child. Each offers its own challenges for teaching and learning, but there are challenges when added together.
Autistic children with ADHD need a predictable routine with reliable expectations while offering choices to allow them to have control over their education. New and exciting challenges are vital to maintaining the interest of those with ADHD.
I’ve taught my own neurodivergent child diagnosed with both ADHD and ASD for a few years. I am also neurodivergent, although undiagnosed through my own school years, which gives me the perspective of having gone through it myself as well as helping my child through it.
The Best Way To Keep An Autistic Child With ADHD Engaged In Learning
I’ve been teaching my own autistic and ADHD child at home since 2019 and I have learned so much about how to help him and meet learning goals since then. This is not a process that ever concludes and will not be the same for every child, so try not to make any rules from my words.
To sum up, what I do for homeschool I like to say flippantly, “I make sure what we do is always the same and very predictable, but also constantly changing and always different.” It sounds oxymoronic, but it’s exactly how I do things.
For autistic children, it is vital that they can anticipate what will happen and when it will happen. This means creating schedules, routines, and rhythms in home and school life. Anxiety is the root cause of many behaviors that are seen as undesirable, so creating an environment that is predictable reduces anxiety and therefore behaviors.
Keep in mind that behaviors are a way of communicating. It is not the behaviors that we must address, but the underlying needs.
For those children with ADHD, they need an ever-moving and stimulating environment. They want to have new and different experiences in order to stimulate their brain and produce the brain chemicals that neurotypical children naturally have.
In order to teach children with ADHD, prepare to have options, choices, and multisensory learning opportunities.
It can seem impossible to blend the needs of children requiring predictability and excitement, but there are some secrets I’ve discovered that make teaching them easy and even fun!
The secret is in choices. The secret is that you don’t need to have your school day look like a stereotypical school day. The secret is in individualization.
One way to add choices is to follow the Montessori education model. I wrote an article on how to do that for children with disabilities.
How To Teach An Autistic Child
Autistic children are fabulous! This is the attitude to go into the classroom with for the best success.
One of the fabulous things about autistic children is that they have a natural excitement about at least one subject. This excitement might not be for subjects on the list of educational standards, but the excitement they have can be harnessed to help them learn.
For example, if you are working with an autistic child to learn basic addition and they have a special interest in trains, you can learn to add trains. Trains on paper, toy trains, even pictures of trains.
But go beyond that. Use their special interest to build a relationship with the child. For example with trains use your time with them to listen and play. Verbal children will love to tell you everything they know about their passion.
The most important thing to teach autistic children is to develop a trusting relationship with them.
One way to build trust is to be predictable. Autistic children have high anxiety and overwhelming anxiety is what leads to behavior problems. So build a relationship with these children to have a better learning experience.
Predictability can be schedules and routines, but it goes beyond that. Visual schedules and keeping them updated as well as warnings about transitions should always be included in the classroom and are an important part of soothing autistic anxiety.
But predictability in your reactions is also important. Contrary to popular belief, many autistic children are painfully aware of other people’s emotions and reactions. Anxiety over not knowing how their teacher or parent may react to a certain situation can be paralyzing.
Behaviorism Treatment Vs Teaching An Autistic Child
Behaviorism is when we look at the behaviors and treat the behaviors without looking beyond them for the root cause. Behaviorism is teaching autistic children to mask behaviors instead of resolving what is behind them.
If instead of looking at behaviors as a problem to be solved we saw it as communication, the long-term results would be so much greater. It would increase the relationship between child and teacher and result in stability overall.
If a child experiences behaviors during a certain time of day or around a certain activity, look into the surrounding situations further. What is happening in the environment that might be activating anxiety and therefore behaviors? What is the child trying to communicate?
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say the child in question is experiencing behaviors before circle time, a time when the class sits together on the floor and participates in certain activities such as listening to a story or sharing with each other.
After visual schedules are employed, sufficient warnings are given, the activity has become an expected part of the day and behaviors are still occurring, consider what else may be going on. Maybe the expectations during the activity are unclear or what happens during the activity changes. Think about what might cause anxiety.
Consider what might be prompting the anxiety and work to solve it. It may be as simple as creating a rhythm within the activity. For example, instead of having something different happen each day do everything in the same order and keep it the same. Or make a more thorough schedule that includes what will happen during that activity or go over expectations.
Remember to think about an autistic child as an individual and not defined by their diagnosis. Assume they are competent and capable. Work with them when possible and not over or around them, even when the child is nonverbal.
Instead of treating the behavior, help the child. Always think of behaviors as a way of communicating a need and keep the focus on the relationship.
How To Teach An ADHD Child
Children with ADHD need excitement and change.
A doctor once explained ADHD medications to me as having 100 tabs open on a browser and when medications are added they automatically cause 97 of them to continue without any effort of the brain allowing the brain to focus on the 3 remaining tabs.
Children with this happening in their brains all at once appear to be unfocused, but these children feel like they are focused. Their brain just works differently, making associations that a typical brain wouldn’t consider.
So while they appear unfocused, think of it as brain power with nowhere to go.
If a child with ADHD is given a worksheet for math, whether they already know the answers or need the practice, they may start to do the worksheet, and then it appears that they just stopped doing it. In their brain, they may have started to notice the patterns, seen a number that reminded them of something else, or other association that the brain considered more interesting than the worksheet.
In order to best help this child, some creative thinking on your part may need to be done. If a worksheet with repetitive practice isn’t working for them, consider alternatives. For example, if the worksheet was simple addition facts, a card game such as “Go To The Dump” from Right Start Math might be more engaging and help them achieve the desired academic outcome.
There is no one thing to do for kids with ADHD. Their brains usually crave new and exciting activities that trigger a dopamine rush rather than repetitive work.
In general, come up with creative ways to learn. ADHD and worksheets don’t usually mix because worksheets are repetitive and require greater and greater effort for the concentration required to complete them.
ADHD commonly comes with RSD or Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. In non-clinical language, this means people with ADHD tend to take any criticism or perceived slight extremely personally and hard.
This means that when teaching ADHD kids it is extremely important to keep in mind how you deliver any criticism at all. I usually do something like, “oh wow, you were so close to the answer!” I will proceed to ask questions to lead my son to the answer.
For example, if we were discussing which planet is 4th from the sun and he said Jupiter, I’d respond with how close he was and then ask which was the first, second, third, etc. I’m not giving him the answer, and I’m not telling him he is wrong or taking anything away.
If I told him he was wrong without working through it together he would have a very difficult time separating that he was wrong on the answer from his intrinsic worth as a person.
Each child with ADHD will respond in different ways but keep RSD in mind when working with any neurodivergent child.
Harnessing ADHD Superpowers
ADHD is one form of neurodivergence. Simply put, neurodivergent means that the brain of this person works differently from that of neurotypical people.
Their brain uses different neuropathways that can appear to hinder daily life, but having a brain that operates other than expected can have great advantages.
These advantages are what I refer to as ADHD superpowers.
When kids with ADHD work extra hard at everyday tasks their peers accomplish with ease, they think that there is something wrong with them. For this reason, it is important to talk about ADHD superpowers or things they are better at because of their ADHD.
ADHD superpowers might include:
- Resilience and Persistence
- Creative Problem Solving
- High Motivation
- High Energy
These are some fantastic traits and something to celebrate. Talk with your kid(s) about some of their traits where ADHD actually benefits them.
Everyone will have a different set of benefits, but these traits are ones that are generally accepted as common with ADHD. When your brain uses different neuropathways than other people, creative problem-solving comes naturally.
Many ADHD kids are extremely creative and love drawing, painting, or doing other crafts. One way you can harness this creativity superpower to benefit them academically is to offer an option for creative expression in place of other assignments.
An example might be to do a painting or collage instead of a book report. Another idea is to have them create a game to learn addition facts. You can also find worksheets to learn math facts and more with color-by-number pictures.
To harness these superpowers you might need to get creative yourself. But if you can find ways to engage them in ways that speak to who they are, academics will be more fun and they will benefit academically as well.
Difference Between The Needs Of ADHD And Autistic Children
On the surface, the needs of ADHD and autistic children seem opposite.
ADHD kids need opportunities to keep things exciting and different. Autistic kids need reliability and predictability in their daily schedules.
However, ASD and ADHD often occur in the same children, especially those with motor coordination problems according to this study. This means that there need to be strategies on how to help those children with both.
The biggest difference is the need for sameness and predictability vs a need for constant change and excitement.
While the needs are different, the root cause is the same – anxiety. The need is what helps them manage those feelings of anxiety. As you go through looking at the different needs between these two, keep thinking about the root cause.
Another difference is that those with autism struggle with language that is not literal. For example, idioms in a story impact their reading comprehension skills. So autistic children need extra explanations and specific instruction.
ADHD kids on the other hand may get frustrated with the extra explanations and want to start doing the work immediately. They may do better learning from mistakes than sitting through explanations.
These are just a couple of contrasts between the two diagnoses, there are many overlaps between them and even when the needs are similar vastly different approaches may be needed.
Blend The Needs Of ADHD And Autistic Children In The Classroom
Over the years I’ve come up with some strategies that blend the needs of the autistic side with those of the ADHD side.
The “big secret” I’ve discovered is to offer choices.
Most children, even neurotypical children, do better with choices. Kids have very little control over their own lives and choices can be helpful for all of them. However, choices work in a different way when considering how to accommodate both autism and ADHD.
For school we have subjects that are required each day, assigned ahead of time online where the student can access them. Since we do school at home we have more flexibility and I allow subjects to be done in any order.
Within each subject, there are multiple choices to be made. For typing, I found 6 different games and websites that offer typing practice. I provide links for all of them each day in the assignment.
How this appeals to autism. Every day we do every subject so he has reliable expectations for what they entail. The frustration is mitigated by the ability to choose what order to do the subjects.
How this appeals to ADHD. Choices on when to do each subject and choices within each subject allow the desire for new and exciting things to be met. The lack of a set time for activities allows the excitement to take over and dig deep into subjects that are interesting.
The prep ahead of time is huge, but it allows us to have great school days. It can also be more expensive if you are purchasing multiple curricula in each subject.
Choices in schedule and daily work allow for an easier day that appeals to both autistic traits and ADHD traits.
Autistic Children With ADHD Are All Different
What works for my autistic and ADHD child won’t work for all children that carry the same diagnosis.
All children are different no matter the diagnosis. Even those with the same cocktail of neurodivergence will require different approaches. So while the above works well for us, it may not work for you.
It is vital that when working with “special needs” children you consider each individual and their needs above their diagnoses.
It is a mistake to approach working with any child based solely on what the doctor has diagnosed them with. Always focus on the relationship and get to know them before deciding the approach to take.
Autistic and ADHD traits are helpful to prepare to work with these kids and make plans, but each will have their own set of needs to be successful in the classroom and academically. Some autistic kids can be very successful in public education, others struggle to learn from any person due to overactive social anxiety.
Always presume competence and treat each as an individual.