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ADHD and Autism

Understanding If There Is A Connection Between ADHD And Autism

There actually isn't an answer to the question posed by the title of this article. Not yet, anyway. But thanks to the tireless efforts of one intuitive mom, the answer may not be long in coming.

That's because the theories of Diane Kennedy, which she articulates in her book The ADHD-Autism Connection: A Step Toward More Accurate Diagnosis and Effective Treatment (WaterBrook Press, 2003), are beginning to attract a lot of notice from researchers who work in the field of learning disabilities and genetics. What these researchers are finding is offering startling new proof that the disorders we know separately as ADD/ADHD and autism may not really be that separate after all.

Living in a Laboratory

Kennedy jokes that she "lives in a laboratory." Her children, she says, are her walking, talking examples of her theory that attention deficit disorders and autism are related.

It all started with her middle son, Ben, who was diagnosed with ADHD in first grade. This was actually a relief to Kennedy and her husband, Tom, who had feared Sam was retarded because of his lack of fine motor skills. What the testing told the Kennedys was that Ben was in reality super bright, just unfocused. The cure, they were told, was Ritalin, which seemed to help Ben in some areas, but not in others.

Kennedy was so absorbed in trying to help Ben that she didn't realize that her other son, Jeff, who was older by two years, was also having problems. By the time he entered middle school, the ADHD profile had changed to include those children who were inattentive without being hyperactive. This profile seemed to fit Jeff perfectly.

"I began to look at it like a cold virus that just manifested itself differently," says Kennedy. "For some it settles in the head. For others it may settle in the chest. What I couldn't figure out, not then anyway, was how both my sons ended up like this? What was the connection?"

Then Sam came along. By age 3 he was diagnosed with severe ADHD as well as oppositional defiance disorder. Like his older brothers, Sam was extremely bright, but his social skills were almost non-existent. In addition, he had an extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli and great difficulty in interacting even with his mother – classic symptoms of pervasive developmental disorders, of which autism is one.

Pieces of a Puzzle

At that time Kennedy wasn't thinking about autism simply because it wasn't yet on her radar screen. All she was trying to do was to find out how best to help her sons. "At this point I was still completely focused on the diagnosis of ADHD and was running around like a madwoman, trying to figure out where my three very different sons fit into this ADD/ADHD spectrum," she says. "The leap from ADHD to autism was made almost accidentally."

That accident was precipitated by a woman named Joni who ran the state council of Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD). She was particularly interested in children with severe cases and suggested to Kennedy that she do some research into autism, particularly Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism.

"When I looked at the checklist, my head just began reeling," says Kennedy. "Not only did it describe Sam's behavior so well, but I realized that my husband also had the classic personality traits of a person with pervasive developmental disorders."

Shortly after, Diane and Tom attended an autistic diagnostic interview for Sam. During the interview, as the doctor asked questions about Sam, Tom would reply, "I'm not so sure about him, but how did you know that about me?"

A Genetic Link

Further testing confirmed that Sam and Tom both had Asperger's syndrome.

"This was such a revelation for me because it explained so much about my marriage and our family relationships and marital relationships that had often been difficult," says Kennedy. "It wasn't long before I began to put this obvious genetic link together with a link to the problems my older sons were having as well."

She began promulgating her theory about an ADHD/autism link to anyone who would listen, speaking at conferences and, eventually, writing the book.

Then, a year ago, she was attending a conference when she was stopped in the hall by neuroscientist Eric Courchesne who was profiled in Newsweek because of his research into predicting autism. An article had just come out about researchers who were looking for an ADHD gene and found that the genes these people had in common had already been identified in people with autism.

"Eric stopped me in the hall and we talked about the article that had come out on the subject," says Kennedy. "Then he told me that my book was the hypothesis and that study was the conclusion. I felt validated."

After being what she refers to as a "one-woman army" for so long, Kennedy is now finding much acceptance for her radical theory. Since she came across this discovery "intuitively" eight years ago, there have been some very concrete findings that are close to proving her theory as fact.

While she's more than grateful that her crusade is helping to define effective future diagnoses and treatments for children with ADHD and autism, she's even more grateful that her sons are doing so well in their lives. Now 18 and 20, Jeff and Ben are pursuing careers, while Sam, 13, is working through his issues with plenty of support from his understanding family. Kennedy could back off now, but she won't.

"As long as I have a breath in me, I will continue to fight for better diagnosis of these disorders in children," says Kennedy. "This is an issue that parents care passionately about because it affects their children. As long as I can continue to help them, I have my life's work."

Joining Forces for Autism

The National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are joining forces to develop two innovative partnerships focused on genetics and behavioral sciences. These partnerships are designed to help doctors biologically diagnose autism and gain an understanding into the cause of the disorder. This collaboration between NAAR and NIH represents a joint commitment of at least .2 million to enhance research and service efforts in the quest to uncover the causes of autism.

The first partnership, the NAAR Autism Genome Project, is the largest research collaboration ever assembled to find the genes associated with autism. The second partnership, the High Risk Baby Siblings Autism Research Project, focuses on early diagnosis of autism.

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