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Asperger’s and Attention Deficit Disorder

"My partner and I have been together for going on 3 years now. She was originally diagnosed with ADD in college, but now after seeing a therapist for anxiety/depression issues, they say she has Aspergers (high functioning). What is the difference between these two …is it possible to have both?"

Diagnosticians make their diagnoses based on the person’s behaviors. Since people with ADD and Asperger’s share similar behaviors, the two can appear to overlap. But, there is an essential difference between the two.

Here are some important distinctions:

•  The unfocused ADD individual is "nowhere," but the highly-focused or “fantasy-oriented" person with Asperger’s is “somewhere else.” “Fantasy people” retreat into their own little world, one in which everything goes the way they want it to. Their daydreaming and fantasizing resembles the behaviors of non-hyperactive people with ADD.

•  The person with ADD knows what to do in social relationships – but forgets to do it. The person with Asperger’s doesn’t know what to do. The Asperger’s individual doesn’t fully understand that relationships are two-sided. If he talks on and on in an un-modulated voice about his special interest, he simply doesn’t understand that he may be boring the listener and showing disinterest in the other person’s side of the conversation. Conversely, the person with ADD can’t control himself from dominating the conversation.

•  The Asperger’s individual can appear unfocused, forgetful and disorganized just like a person with ADD, but there is a difference. The ADD individual is easily distracted, whereas the Asperger’s individual has no "filter." She views everything in her environment as equally important (e.g., her college professor’s accent is as important as what he writes on the whiteboard). Asperger’s individuals tend to get anxious and stuck on small things and can’t see the "big picture." Conversely, people with ADD are not detailed-oriented. They understand the rules – but lack the self-control to follow them, whereas Asperger’s individuals don’t understand the rules.

•  People with ADD respond to behavioral modification. With Asperger’s, the disorder is the behavior. Both types of people can have anger-control issues, talk too loud and too much, and have problems controlling their behaviors and making friends. Both have experienced “social failures” to one degree or another – but for different reasons.

•  Obsessive-compulsive Asperger’s individuals live a world they create from rules and rituals. Like ADD individuals, they appear preoccupied and distracted – but for different reasons. Asperger’s individuals appear distracted because they are always thinking about their "rules" (e.g., Did I use my turn signal back there? Did I meditate for a full 10 minutes?).

•  Asperger’s individuals lack what professionals call "social reciprocity" or “Theory of Mind” (i.e., the capacity to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, motivations and desires that are different from our own). People with ADD have a Theory of Mind and understand other's motives and expectations. Also, they make appropriate eye contact and fully understand social cues, body language and hidden agendas in social interactions, whereas people on the autism spectrum don’t!

Some researchers estimate that 60% to 70% of people Asperger’s also have ADD, which is considered a common comorbidity of Asperger’s. A dual-diagnosis is based on observation of behaviors that are similar for a myriad of disorders. The misfortune is that the affected person often doesn’t receive the correct medications, educational and employment supports, and social-skills training that could help her or him function on a higher level.

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

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