When Your Child Has ADHD and Dyslexia: Treatment for Complex Symptoms

Treating dyslexia with co-occurring ADHD is different than addressing either condition individually. Common strategies to manage ADHD might not work effectively for a child who also has dyslexia, and ADHD symptoms may impact the speed and ease with which a child adopts dyslexia strategies. Here, find six truths and principles for addressing ADHD and dyslexia in children.

boy standing reading with dyslexia character
boy standing reading with dyslexia character

Dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often travel together. (About 25% to 40% of the time, according to some estimates.1) For individuals with ADHD and dyslexia, routine treatment protocols and approaches for each condition may not be effective. ADHD symptoms might affect therapies for dyslexia, and vice versa. And addressing only one condition – a common error – often results in subpar outcomes all around.

If your child has both ADHD and dyslexia, it is important to understand the dynamic interplay between these conditions and how it affects the application of treatments and interventions.

Treating Dyslexia and ADHD: 6 Key Rules

1. Children with dyslexia and ADHD will exhibit both symptom clusters. It may be obvious, but it is worth repeating: Children with co-occurring ADHD and dyslexia will show signs of inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity, and they will have phonological awareness deficits that underlie reading challenges. Any treatment plan must center on this principle.

2. Addressing only one condition will not make the other go away. On ADHD medication, your child’s focus and working memory may improve, but medication won’t unlock the code to reading. Children with dyslexia must participate in special reading instruction. Similarly, dyslexia treatment will not address ADHD symptoms. Multi-sensory structured literacy – an effective approach for dyslexia – will do nothing to treat attention and executive function deficits central to ADHD.

Treatments and interventions for one condition might appear to reduce symptoms of the other, but it is important not to confuse improvement for substantive progress. Inattention, for instance, is part of ADHD, but it can also be secondary to language processing problems. Dyslexia therapies might address the latter, but not the former.

[Get This Free Guide: Signs of Dyslexia at Every Age]

3. Addressing only one condition will reduce the effectiveness of treatments for the other. Lists, planners, and other word-heavy strategies for ADHD fall flat when a child has reading difficulties due to untreated dyslexia. Intensive, fatiguing tutoring sessions for dyslexia will unduly challenge a restless child with untreated ADHD. At the same time…

4. Dyslexia might affect strategies for ADHD. Tools and strategies to address ADHD should de-emphasize reading. To break down this barrier, opt for visual planners, graphic organizers, and pictured checklists over traditional planners and written checklists.

5. ADHD symptoms might affect dyslexia treatments and progress. It may take longer to acquire phonological processing strategies and learn other dyslexia-specific lessons due to ADHD executive function challenges. A language therapist experienced in treating co-occurring dyslexia and ADHD will adjust sessions accordingly – shortening the duration and encouraging active participation to increase engagement, for example.

6. Some reading and writing challenges may be rooted in ADHD. Working memory deficits and inattention may impact reading comprehension, even after extensive treatment for dyslexia. The same symptoms might lead to inaccurate note-taking, poor proofreading skills, and other issues that affect the writing process, even after spelling improves.

[Read: The Defining Signs of Dyslexia Too Often Ignored]

Dyslexia and ADHD, even together, are highly treatable. With the right supports and accommodations, your child can manage the two conditions and thrive.

Treating Dyslexia and ADHD in Children: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “When Dyslexia and ADHD Overlap: Symptoms, Misconceptions, and Interventions [Video Replay & Podcast #403],” with Cheryl Chase, Ph.D., which was broadcast on June 1, 2022.

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1 McGrath, L. M., & Stoodley, C. J. (2019). Are there shared neural correlates between dyslexia and ADHD? A meta-analysis of voxel-based morphometry studies. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders11(1), 31. https://doi.org/10.1186/s11689-019-9287-8