At a biological level, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are different in terms of how the diagnosed person’s brain is wired. Simply put, dyslexia is a language-based learning issue that specifically impacts how well and how quickly a person becomes a proficient reader. ADHD is different in terms of the parts of brain functioning involved that, in broad terms, affects a person’s ability to self-regulate, specifically manifesting as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Not surprisingly, the biological differences between dyslexia and ADHD present different challenges and corresponding interventions.
The impacts of dyslexia are very specific to the tasks of reading, writing, spelling and, in many cases, math. Meanwhile, ADHD most commonly refers to challenges in self-regulation and self-control; for example, being able to control one’s focus on a task or monitoring and managing one’s social behavior. It’s also important to note that ADHD is broken into three subtypes: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive and/or impulsive, and a combination of the two.
However, observers, such as teachers and parents, can easily confuse the avoidant behaviors displayed by those with dyslexia—which can include inattention or excessive wiggling—and assume the symptoms are a result of neurobiologically-based attention deficit disorder. In reality, the source of the stress and/or frustration that drives these behaviors may be a result of difficulties in learning to read and/or write due to dyslexia. While the challenges associated with dyslexia are usually confined to activities that involve reading and writing, ADHD can manifest in almost any circumstance and/or environment.
As I previously mentioned, the interventions for dyslexia and ADHD differ, making it critically important that a child is properly monitored and diagnosed from the beginning. While all interventions for dyslexia should focus on explicit, systematic, intensive, and multisensory training for reading, writing, and spelling instruction, there are different academic approaches being used today. However, the interventions for ADHD are behaviorally- and medically-based. In the vast majority of cases, both behavior management interventions and medication have proven to be very effective in helping people with ADHD self-regulate more effectively.
One area of intervention overlap for both dyslexia and ADHD is support for improved executive functions. Executive function refers to a person’s ability to pay attention, start and stay on task, prioritize what is important, manage emotions, and be able to monitor one’s on-task behavior. While it is not necessarily biologically based for students with dyslexia, working on executive function skills can provide additional support as the tasks of reading, writing and spelling are very difficult and teaching a student to persist through these challenges can be helpful.