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Inattention, Overactivity, and Impulsiveness in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Many children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD or autism) display abnormal behaviors such as restlessness, poor attention span, and overactivity. They are often unable to concentrate or stay focused on tasks or activities. They find it difficult to sit still and pay attention, and can be overactive/hyperactive or impulsive.


Many of these symptoms are shared with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The main features of ADHD are:




  • Child often blurts out answers even before the question has been finished. 
  • Problems with turn-taking 
  • Frequently interrupts conversations 
  • Intrudes in conversations or games 
  • Difficulty controlling emotions and may have angry outbursts



  • Easily distracted and appears not to listen to whoever is talking to them 
  • Difficulty remembering and following instructions



  • Fidgets a lot and finds it hard to sit still 
  • Always moving and on the go 

ADHD can coexist in a child with a diagnosis of autism. Health professionals often refer to a coexisting condition as “comorbid.” Although the two conditions are treated as separate conditions, there is considerable overlap between them. According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry are currently interested, and are conducting a study in the differences between ASD and ADHD.


However, there are other reasons that may cause inattention, overactivity, and impulsiveness. Food intolerance and allergies are linked to hyperactivity, though they are not a direct cause. Soft drinks containing chemicals are commonly implicated in causing allergies and hyperactivity. Sugar and caffeine are stimulants that can also affect a child’s behavior. It is always worthwhile to see a doctor who specializes in food intolerances or allergies. They may advise removing certain foods, beverages, or stimulants in the child’s diet, if these are suspected to trigger an allergic response or intolerance and are exacerbating the existing features of autism.


Sometimes, environmental factors can cause sensitivity to a child diagnosed with autism, such as light and sounds that can be very distracting and uncomfortable. These can cause the child to become temporarily hyperactive or disruptive. Moreover, these incidents can be logged and observed to see if there is a pattern as to when the child becomes overstimulated.


Dealing with a child with autism and also has features of ADHD can be exhausting, often the child will have sleep problems that may or may not be associated with it, along with other abnormal behaviors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are medications used in treating impulsivity and hyperactivity. Ritalin is a stimulant medication that is used to treat ADHD and can decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity in some children with autism, especially those at the higher end of the spectrum.





National Autistic Society. The differences between autism and ADHD, retrieved March 22, 2011, from 

National Institute of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorders (pervasive Developmental Disorders), retrieved March 22, 2011, from

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