Dyslexia and ADHD

Quick Facts on the Linkages Between Dyslexia and ADHD

  • ADD/ADHD is short for Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder
  • ADHD is difficulty focusing attention and controlling behaviour whereas dyslexia is a problem with language and reading
  • Though separate disorders, they are often appear together in children (co-morbidity)
  • Somewhere between 25-40% of children with dyslexia also have ADHD and approximately 25% of children with ADHD also have dyslexia
  • Research shows that many of the same areas of the brain are involved in both conditions
  • ADHD affects approximately 9% of children age 13 to 18 years
  • Boys are four times more likely than girls to have ADHD but the gender balance is equal for dyslexia
ADHD and Dyslexia

ADHD Basics


According to the Mayo Clinic, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is:

"A chronic condition that affects millions of children and often persists into adulthood. ADHD includes a combination of problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior."

There are successful strategies and accommodations to deal with it, and the symptoms often decrease with age, but may never completely disappear.

Subtypes of ADHD  include: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, predominantly inattentive and combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive. (See pie chart below).

ADHD Subtypes


Hyper Impulsive


  • Fidget in their seat
  • Always running around, talking playing, touching
  • Talk and talk and talk
  • Difficulty with quiet tasks that require focus
  • Impatient
  • Blurt out comments without thinking
  • Often interrupt

  • Easily distracted
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Forgetful
  • Daydreaming
  • Trouble following instructions
  • Easily bored


The exact cause of ADHD isn't known, but like dyslexia it is not the result of laziness, low intelligence, disobedience, poor parents, diet or too much television. This can't be emphasized enough.

Research has shown that both genetic and environmental factors are involved. In identical twins, if one has it, there is a high probability both will. A genetic predisposition to ADHD may be 'activated' by certain environmental factors before or after birth.

Causes of ADHD

* Genetics & Environment
* Drugs/Alcohol during pregnancy
* Preschool lead exposure
* Neurotransmitter imbalance
* Delay in brain maturation

But NOT.....

* Poor Diet / Sugar
* Bad Parenting
* Disobedience
* Laziness

For example, use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to higher rates of ADHD in children. Pre-school exposure to high levels of lead has also been implicated in ADHD research.

ADHD seems to reside in the frontal areas of the brain associated with executive functioning, regulation of behaviour, organization, and planning. The specific issue in those areas may be an imbalance in the levels of various neurotransmitters (particularly norepinephrine and dopamine), explaining why common ADHD medications (Ritalin + others) inhibit the uptake of neurotransmitters, leaving more in the bloodstream.

Finally, some recent brain imaging studies have found that in children with ADHD the brain matures in a normal pattern but is simply delayed by about 3 years. This may explain why a significant portion of children seem to outgrow the disorder.

Treatment / Accommodation

Like dyslexia, ADHD can't be cured though treatment, but it can be managed. Every child requires a personal plan which should be developed in consultation with your family doctor and a specialist, usually a clinical psychologist. Treatment may include a combination of:

  • Behavioral Therapies

    Behavioural or cognitive behavioural approaches include techniques used by psychiatrists and psychologists to reduce undesired behaviours such as tantrums, disobedience or low self esteem and at the same time increase desired behaviours such helping, cooperation and positive thoughts and self esteem.

    This type of therapy includes things like 'token economies' which reward good behaviour with small 'tokens' such as points or gold stars.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapies

    Cognitive behavioural therapies involve having children talk about upsetting thoughts and feelings, helping them to recognize these thoughts when they occur and then develop strategies for dealing with them and the behaviours that follow. CBT aims to help children feel better about themselves, to discover and build on strengths (not focus on weaknesses) and successfully cope with daily problems.
Dyslexia and ADHD

Common Forms of ADHD Medications

  • Medication

    Contrary to what you might hear in the media, medications to help children with ADHD are often effective: Approximately 75% of children with ADHD show some behavioural improvement while on medication. 

The most common type of medication used is a stimulant called methylphenidate. It's used in many drugs such as Concerta, Ritalin and Daytrana. Its purpose is to improve a child's ability to pay attention and reduce hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

The ability to sustain focused attention is critical for reading and for any task of long duration or with multiple steps - precisely the kinds of tasks those with both dyslexia and ADHD have a lot of trouble performing.

Focus is also important for keeping things neat and organized. Focused attention is essential for noticing that you just threw your shirt on the floor instead of the hamper or left the textbook and your pen on the table when running off to play Minecraft.

Common side effects from methylphenidate include include loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. These can be major problems, but research shows that these side effects diminish after several weeks of use. If they didn't, ADHD drugs would be the hotest diet pills around, but they are not, because appetite returns for most users. Sleep cycles too improve with time.   

Alternative therapies such as healthier diets, exercise, meditation and so forth may hold some benefit and are certainly unlikely to do much harm, but there are no alternative therapies we are aware of with a body of research evidence behind them.

"But I want them to be
their natural Self"

You may be afraid that your child will become a 'Zombie' on medication or you may be concerned that ADHD medicines are over prescribed by big pharma companies that put profit before the interests of children.

These are reasonable concerns, but we suggest not ruling out medicine and simply discussing it with your family doctor. Yes, there can be side effects to medication and for some kids there may be better interventions to try first, but for some children, medications definitely work. 

Keep in mind that while it may be more 'natural' to be medicine free, your child will also be naturally less attentive, or naturally hyper with all the consequences that flow from that, academically and socially. In short,  m
edications are not magic bullets, they are tradeoffs. There simply is no easy or right solution when struggling with issues of attention.

Distinguishing Dyslexia and ADHD

They are so commonly found together that some mistake dyslexia and ADHD for the same thing, but, to be clear, dyslexia and ADHD are two different disorders one to do with attention and behavior and the other specifically to do with reading. Still, the significant overlap (co-morbidity) suggests some related cause.

You may be concerned that your child is struggling to read, but at the same time unable to distinguish whether this is because she can't focus attention or because she has a problem processing sounds, letters and words.

There is no one test to determine which it may be, or if both conditions are present. If at times your child can read fluently then it may be more likely to be an ADHD problem, but the only certain way to find out is through a separate professional assessment for each condition. Ask your school about reading assessment and your family doctor about assessment for ADHD. 

Final Thoughts

Dyslexia and ADHD are distinct and separate conditions but they often occur together, suggesting some shared underlying causes, likely hereditary and neurological in origin.

Without professional assessment it may be difficult to tease the two problems apart with ADHD possibly accounting for some reading disability. For more information on reading assessment try our page on dyslexia testing. For assessment of ADHD, consult with your family doctor.

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Photo Credits:

Corkboard: ©Thinglass. www.dreamstime.com

ADHD Subtypes Piechart: By Psyc3330 w11 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Methylphenidate Pills: By Alfie↑↓© (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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