Updated: Mar 8
Have you noticed your child with ADHD shutting down with long reading assignments?
Are you observing spelling issues and difficulty reading basic sight words?
Do you feel your child is highly intelligent but can't seem to read fluently?
It may be beneficial to consider a learning disorder called dyslexia.
Dyslexia and ADHD are two separate neurological disorders with different causes. However, they both impact learning, especially reading and writing skills.
ADHD and dyslexia often go hand in hand.
The International Dyslexia Association estimates a 30% chance of having both ADHD & dyslexia if one diagnosis is present.
While difficult to distinguish because of their similar symptoms, this article will describe both disorders, address the challenges of the comorbidity, and provide direction in how to manage both effectively.
Table of Contents
Definitions of ADHD & dyslexia
Many people mistake dyslexic symptoms for ADHD and vice-versa. No two people with ADHD or dyslexia exhibit the same behaviors.
How can we determine the differences? We must first define what each disability is.
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a neurological disorder that impairs executive functioning skills. People with ADHD often have limited working memory, emotional regulation, flexibility and self-control.
There are a few different types of ADHD however. These include:
To find out more about the range of ADHD diagnoses, see our article titled: ADHD vs ADD.
Dyslexia is a specific language based learning disability that directly impacts linguistic skills.
The American Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states:
a specific learning disability, which includes a reading disability, refers to a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language.
Dyslexia affects the ability to understand words and passages. Skills involving phonemic awareness, decoding, sight word recognition, identifying punctuation and grammatical awareness are all impacted. Comprehension and fluency is greatly effected when these skills are underdeveloped.
According to the Yale Research Center for Dyslexia & Creativity:
Dyslexia affects 20 percent of the population and represents 80–90 percent of all those with learning disabilities. It is the most common of all neuro-cognitive disorders.
You may notice:
Difficulty blending letter sounds
Incorrect substitutions of words
Difficulty segmenting words into syllables
High vocabulary & verbal comprehension
Difficulty with foreign languages
Low working memory
Auditory and visual processing deficits
Fatigue with large reading assignments
When word recognition does not connect with language comprehension as shown below, a few key strands are missing to perform proficient reading skills.
Review the diagram below to see how language comprehension and word recognition play into a child's ability to fluidly and accurately engage in the task of reading:
Dyslexia is not connected to intelligence. When given cognitive testing, students with dyslexia are within the normal ranges.
Because of the challenges of dyslexia, students are more likely than their peers to drop out of school and struggle to maintain jobs later in life.
In what ways are ADHD & dyslexia connected?
According to medical professionals and the National Center for Learning Disabilities:
Individuals with ADHD are more likely to have a learning disability than those who do not have ADHD. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability.
Dyslexia is often exacerbated by ADHD. By the fourth or fifth grade students may exhibit more severe dyslexia and adhd symptoms because of the change of reading to learn.
It is important to recognize how they may or may not relate.
Slow, laborious reading
Information-processing speed challenges
Working memory deficits
Naming speed challenges
Motor skills deficits
Self-esteem issues and anxiety due to disability
Difficulty writing neatly
Apparent from the first day of school
Not fully recognized until fourth or fifth grade when reading to learn
Concentration and attention problems across all settings
Missed directions because of lack of comprehension or fatigue
Low attention in unstimulating environment or task
Concentration and attention problems with reading demands only
Skipping punctuation and losing place on page
Struggle sounding out words
Trouble listening to and reading directions
Better auditory processing than those with ADHD
Trouble organizing thoughts identifying errors in work
Poor proofreading, spelling and grammar use
Forgetful across all life situations
Forget words or names
Can often read accurately when able to focus
Mispronounce names or incorrectly substituting words
Reading impacted especially when uninterested in topic
Fatigue around reading because of the challenge
Writing impacted by random thoughts
Slow writing process
ADHD symptoms are exacerbated by dyslexia and vice-versa. They have several symptoms in common, such as, information-processing speed challenges, working memory deficits, naming speed, and motor skills deficits.
While they are similar, ADHD can impact life in much wider ways than dyslexia. Forgetfulness and inattentiveness across all settings can impact social and emotional well-being.
How common is it to have both ADHD and dyslexia?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia are both neurological disorders that impact learning. They frequently occur together. However, the regions of the brain thought to be impacted by ADHD and dyslexia are not the same.
While scientists have observed similar gray matter in the are of the brain that correlates with executive functioning and procedural learning, there is a surprising lack of overlap between the disorders.
McGrath & Stoodley discuss a common thread between disabilities in their brain research:
There is extensive neuropsychological evidence documenting executive dysfunction in both dyslexia and ADHD, especially in working memory, inhibition, and sustained attention, which depend on frontal-striatal circuitry.
Research also suggests that there may be genetic and environmental factors that contribute to both ADHD and dyslexia. There are several genes that have been associated with both conditions, specifically dopamine regulation and brain development.
According to the Dyslexia International Association:
Both ADHD and dyslexia run in families. Genetics play a role in about half of the children diagnosed with ADHD...Regarding dyslexia, about one third of the children born to a dyslexic parent will also likely be dyslexic.
Should we do further testing for dyslexia?
Early intervention for reading challenges is highly recommended. Express concern early if your child has been diagnosed with either ADHD or dyslexia.
Dyslexia, along with ADHD, can impact reading development and self-esteem that can last for a lifetime.
In the case of dyslexia presenting alongside ADHD, specific treatment of co-morbid ADHD is important for improving dyslexia. Major problems can be minimized by appropriate adhd medicines that help students meaningfully engage in dyslexia interventions.
The sooner a child is diagnosed, the quicker a child can receive appropriate interventions or medication.
If you suspect your child has undiagnosed dyslexia, share your concerns with your child's school team.
Refer to our articles in order to help you with further assessment and support for disabilities like dyslexia.
If you've been paying for services for your dyslexic child, you can request funding using this guide: 3 Steps To Request Compensatory Special Education Funds
Cognitive and Neurological research
According to the journal of Neuro-developmental Disorders, dyslexia and ADHD are "highly co-morbid neurodevelopmental disorders" and have the same percentage of adhd and dyslexia comorbidity either direction.
In her recent neurobiology research around dyslexia, Dr. Sung Koo Kim states:
Dyslexia is most commonly caused by a difficulty in phonological processing (the appreciation of the individual sounds of spoken language), which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read, and spell. Interventions for dyslexia can affect reading ability by causing changes in brain function and structure.
Researchers agree that attention difficulties may directly impact developmental reading skills.
Studies around interventions have shown that multi-sensory approaches forge new pathways in the dyslexic brain so that it functions more like a typical brain.
Engaging these senses forces the dyslexic brain to activate and utilize the two areas in the back of the brain that are naturally activated in a non-dyslexic brain when reading.
Sensory strategies have also been known to increase engagement for students with ADHD.
There is ongoing research to fully understand the nature of the overlap of ADHD & learning disabilities and effective treatments are still being developed.
Strategies for managing adhd and dyslexia symptoms
My child has both diagnoses, what next?
ADHD and dyslexia symptoms can improve with direct intervention strategies and support.
The following are specific settings and strategies are useful for managing ADHD and dyslexia in the classroom and at home.
Accommodations do not change the structure of learning, but rather level the playing field.
Some accommodations to consider:
Work environment with minimal distractions
Quiet room or area of the room to work and complete tests
Seat close to instruction
Alternative furniture (wiggle seat, T stool, bounce band for chair legs)
Individual or small group instruction
Timers to keep track of time (visual preferred)
Large print or colorful paper
Colored stripes and bookmarks for keeping place in texts
High interest reading materials (at grade level when possible-be careful about self-esteem and younger looking material)
Let them re-read familiar texts
Audio/Visual supports with written work
Reading buddy to take turns
Graphic organizers to accompany learning
Outline of notes/lesson to follow along
Rubrics for expectations
Frequent breaks (drink of water, quick walk, drawing)
Extra time on tests and longer writing/reading tasks with breaks
Fewer Items per page
Multi-sensory approach (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile – VAKT)
Reteach & read similar content
Read written instructions out loud (teach them to do this independently)
Step-by-step directions with visual prompts (Arrows, numbers)
Simplify words when appropriate
Highlight or bold key words
Checks for understanding
Break tests and assignments into smaller chunks
Scaffold lessons for new skills
Putting new learning into own words as soon as possible after class—talking about learning
Work samples and examples to follow
Additional Practice – more time to review new skills at school or home
Various response options (verbal/dictate responses, point to answers, project-based, computer-based, mark in book instead of paper)
Alternative quiz answer options: circling instead of fill-in
Sentence starters for open-ended questions
Spelling/Grammar support (Grammarly.com is a great resource)
Advocacy (Both parents and child)
Treating ADHD can address some but not all dyslexic symptoms. Talk with your school about considering further resources and support with a new dyslexia diagnosis
School or home-based curriculum is available to address dyslexia. Consider the following titles: Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, Really Great Learning, Sondaysystem and Lindamood-Bell are all well-known and research-based.
Students can speak with their teachers about their needs
Review the list above and ask them what they think may help
To support speaking with the teacher, consider the resource:
Executive function coaching alongside dyslexia intervention strategies can greatly improve reading and writing performance. If you are using both, consider using the Family Team Meeting process as a way to weave these two support systems together for increased efficacy.
To support the process of addressing the challenges that come with dyslexia and ADHD symptoms, a few practical resources are provided.
Structured Word Inquiry strategy (Using verbal/vocabulary skills to support spelling)
Dyslexie font typeface – specially designed for people with dyslexia – enhances the ease of reading and comprehension
Accommodation check-list: free resource below!
Cigdem Knebel of Simple Words Books, an organization that helps dyslexics with reading-confidence, provides a practical checklist for finding appropriate books for dyslexic children:
Are the words familiar and decodable?
Does it contain frequently used sight words?
Are the words short and do they have closed syllables?
Are sentences short and direct?
Is the font size 12 or higher?
Do the pages contain some illustrations?
Are the paragraphs not overly busy or text-heavy?
Individuals with ADHD and dyslexia are intelligent and resilient. With time, support, and encouragement, a person living with these diagnoses can feel more positive and confident.
With your support, your child can access the tools they need to be successful!
You are not alone in this journey as a parent to dyslexic or ADHD students. Consider reaching out to health professionals, teachers and educational psychologists.
Executive function coaching also provides targeted support for dyslexia. Visit our homepage efspecialists.com and contact us for further information!
Sources & Further Reading
Barton, M. (2023). What is Dyslexia? Retrieved from: https://www.marcipetersonet.com/what-is-dyslexia.html
Didau, D. Reading Difficulty is a Teaching Problem Not An Intelligence Problem. (2016) Retrieved from: https://learningspy.co.uk/literacy/if-a-child-leaves-a-school-unable-to-read-the-school-has-failed/
Family Medicine Austin. (2022). What Are Similarities and Dissimilarities between Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Retrieved from: https://familymedicineaustin.com/dyslexia-and-adhd-knowing-the-difference/
Higuera, V. (2022). Conditions Related to Dyslexia: ADHD, Autism, Depression, and More. Retrieved from: https://www.everydayhealth.com/dyslexia/sometimes-dyslexia-wont-only-diagnosis/
International Dyslexia Association. (2022). Accommodations for Students with Dyslexia. Retrieved from: https://dyslexiaida.org/accommodations-for-students-with-dyslexia/
International Dyslexia Association. (2022). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and Dyslexia. Retrieved from: https://dyslexiaida.org/attention-deficithyperactivity-disorder-adhd-and-dyslexia/
Knebel, C. (2023). Dyslexia Reading Strategies for Students. Read and Spell Blog. https://www.readandspell.com/us/dyslexia-reading-strategies
Lynchmay, M. (2022). Classroom and At-Home Accommodations for Dyslexia. Retrieved from: https://www.thetechedvocate.org/classroom-and-at-home-accommodations-for-dyslexia/
McGrath, L.M., Stoodley, C.J. Are there shared neural correlates between dyslexia and ADHD? A meta-analysis of voxel-based morphometry studies. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders: 11, 31 (2019). Retrieved from: https://jneurodevdisorders.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s11689-019-9287-8
Olivardia, R. (2022) The Dyslexia and ADHD Connection. ADDitude Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-dyslexia-connection/
About the author
Kelsey Sinclair is an executive function specialist with EFS. She was a special educator for over 10 years in public school settings. She completed her masters degree in Education with an emphasis on educational therapy to support students with executive functioning deficits. She specializes in social/emotional skill development and provides interventions to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Kelsey utilizes a strengths-based approach to coaching, supporting her students toward independence and a positive self-concept.