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ADHD and Dyslexia: How to Tell Them Apart

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 23, 2020

ADHD and dyslexia are different brain disorders. But they often overlap. About 3 in 10 people with dyslexia also have ADHD. And if you have ADHD, you’re six times more likely than most people to have a mental illness or a learning disorder such as dyslexia.

But having ADHD doesn’t mean you’ll get dyslexia. Nor does dyslexia cause ADHD.

The two conditions can have similar symptoms and risk factors. This sometimes can make it hard to tell them apart.

The Dyslexia-ADHD Link

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that can make it hard for you to process written and spoken language. ADHD affects your impulse control and focus and makes you prone to hyperactivity.

They share some common traits.

Heredity. Both conditions can run in families. About half of people with ADHD have a relative who also has it. That’s also true about 30% of the time for dyslexia.

Brain features. The brains of people with ADHD and dyslexia are physically and chemically different from those who don’t have the disorders. For example, the brains of children with ADHD tend to be a bit different and may be less active in certain areas, or brain chemicals called neurotransmitters don’t work as usual. Brain images of people with dyslexia show the left side of their brains may be less active.

Risk factors. Certain things can raise your chances of having either ADHD or dyslexia or both. They include:

Being around toxins such as lead is a possible cause of ADHD but not for dyslexia. A stroke or other brain damage could lead to dyslexia.

Symptoms: Similarities and Differences

No two people with ADHD or dyslexia have the same symptoms. But the two disorders can show up in similar ways.

Reading difficulty. This can be a symptom of both conditions. But it can look different for each. People with dyslexia tend to take longer to sound out words on the page. Or they might misread the words. ADHD also may slow your reading speed. But you’ll usually read accurately. Instead, you’re more likely to skip over punctuation and endings or lose your place on the page.

Trouble writing. Dyslexia can make it hard to spell, proofread, organize, and use grammar correctly. If you have ADHD, you might find that organizing your thoughts and spotting errors in your writing are the biggest challenges. People with both conditions find it hard to write neatly.

Forgetfulness. Adults with dyslexia tend to mispronounce people’s names, have trouble recalling places, or mix up similar words. But ADHD can make you more forgetful in everyday life. You might skip important appointments, misplace your keys, or have patchy memories of your childhood.

Attention issues. Reading can take so much effort if you have dyslexia that it can tire you out. That makes it hard for you to concentrate for very long. ADHD is partly an attention disorder. It’s easy to get distracted or to tune out. This is especially true when your task is boring or repetitive, or if you’re reading or listening to someone speak.

A key difference with ADHD is that it can affect your life in much wider ways than with dyslexia. Unmanaged ADHD can lead to missed deadlines and other problems at work, conflicts with your loved ones, and a hard time managing your money, and other everyday responsibilities.

Get Support

Both ADHD and dyslexia are covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). You can ask your employer for reasonable accommodations to do your job, such as extra time to prepare for projects. Some people may not qualify for ADA protection, depending on how severely your symptoms interfere with your work.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

International Dyslexia Association: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and Dyslexia,” “Dyslexia and Resilience in Adults: A Psychologist’s Perspective,” “Dyslexia and the brain.”

HelpGuide: “ADHD in Adults.”

University of Michigan: “Conditions Related to Dyslexia.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dyslexia,” “Adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),”

The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity: “Signs of Dyslexia.”

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD): “Diagnosis of ADHD in Adults,” ”For Adults: Overview,” “Asking for Workplace Accommodations.”

Psychiatry (Edgmont): “Adult ADHD: Diagnosis, Differential Diagnosis, and Medication Management.”

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences: “Connectionist neuropsychology: uncovering ultimate causes of acquired dyslexia.”

Gracepoint: “Diagnostic Challenge 2: ADHD versus Similar Disorders.”

Understood: “How Dyslexia Is Diagnosed After High School.”

The British Journal of General Practice: “Dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD in adults: what you need to know.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Recognizing and managing ADHD in adults.”

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