They have some shared symptoms, but dyslexia and ADHD are separate conditions. Here’s how to to tell them apart and tips for managing these conditions.

Mother and son with ADHD/dyslexia reading bookShare on Pinterest
Maskot/Getty Images

Dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are two neurological conditions that can make learning more difficult.

The former affects 11%, and the latter affects between 5 to 20%, but it’s difficult to estimate precisely.

Sometimes, the symptoms of ADHD and dyslexia can be hard to tell apart — as both can cause trouble with reading and writing. But even though the symptoms can appear similar, the underlying reasons for the symptoms are very different.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a condition that impacts your ability to use language. You may have trouble matching letters to sounds or recognizing the sounds in words. This can make it hard to read and understand what you’re reading.

Dyslexia can also make spelling, writing, or math more difficult.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a condition that affects your executive functioning skills, which include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. This can make it hard for you to manage your daily responsibilities.

ADHD can also impact your ability to focus in the classroom or on your work. ADHD can also make it difficult to handle your emotions. People with ADHD can be hyperactive or impulsive.

You can learn more about ADHD symptoms here.

How are dyslexia and ADHD similar?

Dyslexia and ADHD have several similarities, such as:

  • Both conditions can be genetic. Between 40 to 60% of people inherit dyslexia, and about 77 to 88% of people inherit ADHD.
  • Both disorders can make it more difficult to learn how to read or organize your thoughts when writing.
  • ADHD and dyslexia can make paying attention hard.
  • They can contribute to difficulties when when communicating with others.
  • Both allow you to be more creative in your thinking and artistic abilities.

How are they different?

Even with those similarities, the two conditions are actually very different.

  • Reading. Dyslexia can make it more difficult to read because it impacts your ability to use language, while ADHD impacts your ability to focus.
  • Writing. Dyslexia can make it more challenging to write because skills like spelling and grammar are impacted. ADHD impacts your ability to organize your thoughts and pay attention to details.
  • Life. Dyslexia may cause people to struggle with reading and understanding tests, filling out forms, and planning. ADHD often has wider impacts on daily life, and may cause you to be late to appointments, miss deadlines, and have difficulty managing money.

“There’s a lot of crossover between kids with dyslexia and kids with attention issues,” says Chris Bogart, a child and adolescent psychologist and co-executive director of the Sasco River Center in Connecticut.

“Dyslexia is a disorder that impacts how three different parts of the brain are wired together. Typically, there’s a track that connects the auditory, visual, and language parts of the brain together, which allows a person to become a fluent reader,” Bogart explains.

For people with dyslexia, however, there’s a disruption between those pathways. As a result, the brain creates an “alternate and much less efficient pathway through the frontal lobe to process reading material,” he says.

Though this different brain process might make reading fluidly more difficult, people with dyslexia can still learn how to read.

As far as dyslexia’s connection with ADHD, Bogart notes that “ADHD is a disorder of the frontal lobe, and if some of the frontal lobe structures are being used to read, then the frontal lobe is overtaxed. This can affect a person’s ability to focus.”

Bogart also explains that re-wiring can also reduce a person’s stamina.

A person with dyslexia must often work much harder to read and use their language skills than a neurotypical person. Eventually, they “run out of steam,” making it difficult for them to sustain their focus.

In his practice, Bogart has found that sometimes, as a child’s reading skills improve, the ADHD symptoms decrease or disappear.

“There’s a lot of thinking out there that some of the kids who are diagnosed with both disorders may not truly have ADHD,” he says.

Managing both a child’s struggle to read and the symptoms of ADHD can be challenging, but it is possible. For this, Bogart offered several tips you might find useful.

Break it down into small, manageable pieces

If your child’s teacher asks them to read for 30 minutes every night, that doesn’t mean they need to read for 30 consecutive minutes. Instead, you could work with them for 5 minutes, then take a break to do something active for 5 minutes.

“I’ve found that for many kids with dyslexia and ADHD, as long as we’re able to turn the learning into manageable, bite-sized pieces, and you’re able to get them up and moving, you can get through it,” says Bogart. “You need to make it fun for them.”

Turn everyday life into learning experiences

If you’re at a red light and notice a billboard or other sign, use the opportunity to decode the words together. You can do the same thing while waiting in line at the supermarket or any store. You can even turn it into a fun game.

“The more you can work some of those learning moments into natural day-to-day existence, the better,” he says. “When you don’t have to climb Mount Everest every time they read, you’re going to make much more headway.”

Find their superpower and help them embrace it

Bogart says that many people with dyslexia or ADHD are very artistic and creative. When one area of their life is a struggle, doing something they enjoy and are good at can bring them a sense of joy and improve their self-confidence and self-esteem.

“Make sure that you’re balancing things out,” Bogart advises. “If you’re asking them to do some heavy lifting when it comes to reading, let them do something enjoyable as well.”

Become a strong advocate for your child

“There’s nothing more important than making sure your child receives a scientifically researched-based intervention,” says Bogart.

“The difference between a student who gets really good instruction using scientific methods versus the student who just gets reading lessons can be huge.”

Become knowledgeable about the research and learn some basics that you can reinforce at home in your reading lessons. Simply sitting with your child and having them labor through it without understanding how to help them is like spinning a wheel and just digging a bigger ditch.

“You want to keep them from getting frustrated because once they get frustrated, they’re going to shut down,” Bogart says.

Support their ADHD symptoms during learning

“A person with ADHD has a relatively low tolerance for things that are not interesting, or they don’t believe are worthwhile,” Bogart says.

“So, if the instruction doesn’t have any traction, and they don’t feel like they’re getting anything out of it, then their ADHD is going to kick in to a much greater degree.”

In addition to the 5-minute work periods, you can take a break as soon you have some success so they have a few minutes to bask in their achievement.

Bogart also suggests using sensory supports during learning sessions to have continual fine motor movement, which can help them focus. This could include clay, fidgets, or other items they can manipulate with their hands.

ADHD and dyslexia can go hand in hand. Though it may seem overwhelming when your child receives their initial diagnosis, your child can learn to live a fruitful life, especially with the right tools and support.

You can support your child by ensuring they receive scientifically researched-based interventions and learning how to help them at home. When you can make learning fun, they’re more likely to succeed.

To continue your journey and learn more about ADHD and dyslexia, you can explore these resources: