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Autism Res. 2009 Dec;2(6):322-33. doi: 10.1002/aur.103.

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms moderate cognition and behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders.

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  • 1Children's Research Institute-Neuroscience, Children's National Medical Center, Washington, District of Columbia 20010, USA.


Recent estimates suggest that 31% of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) meet diagnostic criteria for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and another 24% of children with ASD exhibit subthreshold clinical ADHD symptoms. Presence of ADHD symptoms in the context of ASD could have a variety of effects on cognition, autistic traits, and adaptive/maladaptive behaviors including: exacerbating core ASD impairments; adding unique impairments specific to ADHD; producing new problems unreported in ASD or ADHD; having no clear impact; or producing some combination of these scenarios. Children with ASD and co-morbid ADHD symptoms (ASD+ADHD; n = 21), children with ASD without ADHD (ASD; n = 28), and a typically developing control group (n = 21) were included in the study; all groups were matched on age, gender-ratio, IQ, and socioeconomic status. Data were collected on verbal and spatial working memory, response inhibition, global executive control (EC), autistic traits, adaptive functioning, and maladaptive behavior problems. In this sample, the presence of ADHD symptoms in ASD exacerbated impairments in EC and adaptive behavior and resulted in higher autistic trait, and externalizing behavior ratings. ADHD symptoms were also associated with greater impairments on a lab measure of verbal working memory. These findings suggest that children with ASD+ADHD symptoms present with exacerbated impairments in some but not all domains of functioning relative to children with ASD, most notably in adaptive behavior and working memory. Therefore, ADHD may moderate the expression of components of the ASD cognitive and behavioral phenotype, but ASD+ADHD may not represent an etiologically distinct phenotype from ASD alone.

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