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ADHD and Learning Disabilities: What’s the Connection?

ADHD and learning disabilities have similarities, but they aren’t the same thing. Learn about both and how they affect a child’s life, on HealthyPlace.

ADHD and learning disabilities are problems children might have that interfere in their learning. ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is an executive functioning impairment. An example of executive functioning is the ability to focus and pay attention to something long enough to take it in and process it. Other aspects of executive function include sustaining effort to complete a task and working memory. Additionally, ADHD can have a behavior component involving hyperactivity and difficulty remaining still. Like learning disabilities, ADHD directly interferes in a child’s ability to learn; however, ADHD and learning disabilities are different.

Is ADHD a Learning Disability?

Learning disabilities also directly interfere in a child’s ability to learn, but in a different way. Children who have a specific learning disability have problems processing and retrieving information. Learning disabilities are categorized as language/reading disorders, math disability, writing disability, auditory or visual processing disorders, or a nonverbal disability.

ADHD isn’t a learning disability. Learning difficulties in ADHD are caused by behaviors resulting from executive function problems. Like specific learning difficulties, ADHD can qualify as a disability classified as Other Health Impaired under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Both ADHD and specific learning disabilities, then, can qualify a child for special education services.

Learning disabilities and ADHD are distinct, but it’s possible for a child to have both. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (Bailey, 2007), 20 to 30 percent of kids with ADHD also have a learning disability. Dyslexia, a reading disorder, is the most common learning disorder associated with ADHD. What is it like for a child to have learning disabilities with ADHD?

When a Child Has Both ADHD and Learning Disabilities

Life can become quite challenging and frustrating for these children. The executive function impairments of ADHD added to processing and language, math, or other skills impairments create problems in nearly all, if not all, areas of a child’s life. Academics, relationships with family, teachers, activity leaders, and peers.

Friendships can be difficult to form and keep. Self-esteem is usually damaged, as is emotional health. Often, peers tease children who have ADHD, a learning disability, or learning disabilities with ADHD, calling them stupid and other such insults. These disorders have nothing to do with intelligence. With either type of disorder, there is a discrepancy between potential (what the child can achieve intellectually) and performance (how they do because of the disabilities).

How to Help a Child Who Has Learning Disabilities with ADHD

Currently, there is no cure for learning disabilities or ADHD. However, there is much that can be done to help kids who have a specific learning disability, ADHD, or both. Special education services and therapy are two common interventions to help students succeed academically, socially, at home, and in their greater lives.

When addressing these disorders together, it’s important to identify common symptoms the child experiences. Symptoms that can be part of both learning disorders and ADHD include:

  • Disorganization
  • Difficulty with transferring skills and knowledge (applying strategies learned in one situation to a different situation)
  • Inattention and ability to focus (while this isn’t a part of learning disorders themselves, it can happen as a result of a child’s frustration and stress with school)

Understanding the overlapping symptoms helps because it provides a starting point in helping children deal with having two challenging disorders that impact them wherever they go. After understanding problems unique to the child, it’s important to separate the effects of ADHD from those of learning disabilities. This way, each can be addressed with specific focus. Helping a child with learning and other challenges separately from behavioral and attention areas can be very effective. This way, they can enhance individual skills and feel more in control over themselves and their progress.

While ADHD and learning disabilities are two distinct disorders, there is a connection between them. Both can negatively impact a child’s life, and both can be addressed with the child to allow them to create better experiences at home, school, and beyond.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2019, August 21). ADHD and Learning Disabilities: What’s the Connection?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, October 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/adhd/adhd-and-learning-disabilities-whats-the-connection

Last Updated: September 12, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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