Did my ADHD mask my autism? (and vice-versa)

Most people think if you are autistic or an ADHDer, then you’re diagnosed as a child and then all of a sudden, it magically disappears when you turn 18. Oh, how naïve this assumption is. I didn’t even get my autism confirmed until I was 24, and my ADHD the following year. Now I’ve talked about gender-bias a lot, but what if also my autistic signs hid my ADHD, and my ADHD symptoms hid my autism. Meaning that my “behaviour” didn’t fit nicely into either category, thus going undiagnosed until I realised in my mid-20s. Here I’m going to talk about three key things that I think contributed to this.

Attention to detail  

There is a massive stereotype that all autistics are brilliant and superb at attention to detail. Well, I’m not. I miss small details because I can’t keep my attention for long, so I may notice one or two, but I’ll miss the other 20. In my autism assessment, I was praised for my good attention to detail, but that was in tested conditions with no other distractions. In the real-world when you’re working in an office or busy environment, it’s almost impossible for me to notice all the details. Also because of my dyslexia, it can be challenging to see my spelling or grammar mistakes, even with the support of assistive software, I often have to get somebody else to read over my work which is essential. I feel there is a generic view that autistics are brilliant at attention to detail and ADHDers are rubbish. For me, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, and I don’t really fit either stereotype strongly.

Liking change

I know shock horror I’m an autistic who likes change, but I think this is associated with my ADHD. Often when I don’t find something challenging any more, I feel the need to do something new and have a change in my life, I credit this to my ADHD. For example, I have my intense interests as an autistic, but I have more than one, and they can change quite frequently. There are a few consistent ones, but my interests certainly don’t fit the pattern of having only one interest that lasts a lifetime. However, when it comes to more day-to-day things like what I eat, this rarely changes. As you can see, there is a little bit of both here, and from a surface level, it may not scream autism or ADHD. Trust me they are both definitely there, even if they are not apparent from the outside.

Needing routine but not liking it

Again another standard view is that autistic people stick strictly to their routines. Well, this isn’t the case for me. I see the benefit of routine, and there is that part of me deep-down that acknowledges routine will be a positive thing in my life, but I struggle to stick with it. It’s like I can’t even get myself organised enough to execute a routine (If that makes sense). I find that my ADHD can make it challenging to get to the point were I can carry out a routine. So it’s a never-ending dilemma and I often just sit there doing nothing because I need a routine to organise myself. Still, I can’t organise myself enough to get the routine going. Having the combination of wanting routine, but not knowing how to carry it out conflicts common understandings of both autism and ADHD.

As you can see this is a really complicated issue, and I’m not saying for sure, my autism hid my ADHD and vice versa, but I do think it is a possibility as I didn’t present a way that most people would expect autism or ADHD to look like. What do you think? Do you also have both conditions? Are your experiences similar for different from mine? I’d love to know in the comments below.

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3 thoughts on “Did my ADHD mask my autism? (and vice-versa)

  1. I empathize a lot with this, and I definitely think that both autism and ADHD are contributing their own complications which affect the other. I find the combination of both tends to make all of the symptoms very “conditional”, rather than the general consistency you would expect from one in isolation. Not to say that ADHDers are “consistent”, but rather that their specific challenges and symptoms are more “predictable” when they don’t also have autism.

    It really feels like my life is a complicated house of cards where an absurd number of variables influences my overall ability to function, and to people on the outside who don’t have to deal with the bullshit that goes on in my head, my behaviors often seem arbitrary or nonsensical. Granted, the reasons *for* said behaviors can definitely feel that way – I’m just doing my god damn best to make it through the day.

    Ultimately though, I am me and I don’t think I would change that. Best thing you can do is surround yourself in an environment that gives you the freedom & acceptance to figure out what works best for you, and have people to support you through it both physically & emotionally.

  2. Hm I keep asking myself the same question as you do in the article, but the other way around.

    I’m pretty clearly autistic, but recently I started wondering if ADHD is also present – an autism consultant suggested this when I mentioned that my interests are super-intense, but I usually can’t stick to any one for long enough or with any sort of commitment to for example make it a career, or even finish a complete education in it. Plus, they are insanely wide-ranging.

    In my case, I can have enough attention to detail to e.g. job as an editor / proofreader for statistics or science papers (sounds autistic enough to me :D). It bores me to death though – unless it’s a new topic I know nothing about (and am sort of guessing how to fix the paper :D)! On the other hand, I don’t have enough patience literally to read a recipe or a manual before assembling a device. I often don’t even have enough patience to wait through red lights (luckily I walk and cycle, don’t drive), and don’t mention waiting in a queue behind even 1-2 other clients. I notoriously can’t book online tickets or make online payments without cursing the website/device and taking 45 min (sometimes by repeatedly making the same wrong inputs out of impatience) where my patient partner takes 2 minutes.

    In brief, in my case it seems like both extremes are somehow present in different contexts – I can spend hours on minuscule stuff in one, and freak out when I have to wait 30 seconds or copy a number into a form in another.

    I’ve asked myself, doesn’t that “average out” into neurotypical then? The weird thing it doesn’t – both sets of extremes are more extreme than in the typical person I think (like, I did the autistic thing of reading encyclopaedias and dictionaries – not very NT. At the same time, flying into a rage because I have to follow some idiotic instructions rather than just fiddling with the thing until it works – not NT either?).

    The routine question is also different than in your case I think – and in my case it’s the source of endless stress. The truth is, I NEED routine – around food (very specific nutrition), sleep, daily structure & activities, people, walking routes, my living space, exercise – everything. This allows me to be healthy and regulated. At the same time, whenever I achieve it, it drives me bored and depressed – and then usually I do something fun like moving countries, or quitting my “work” for a totally different one, or signing up for some random huge commitment that will be really challenging, because … I’m bored and it’s a challenge !!! This then destroys the routine, and within 2 days I’m dysfunctional (includes emotional deregulation and body pain). I build it up slowly again, over weeks. Then I get bored and do the same thing again.

    I don’t find a middle ground, or a way to modulate this.

    And in this case again, I think it doesn’t average out into just being the typical person who likes a balance of routine and change – because my changes really seem extreme to most people (e.g. starting a new career in a new country with a new language), and I think my requirements for routine do too (e.g. shifting meal time by 1h can be a killer).

    I would also be very curious if anyone relates to this pattern, which is different I think.

    Thanks for posting about this topic!

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