Is ADHD a Learning Disability?

It's not;but it's possible to have both

ADHD and Learning disability. PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images

ADHD is not a learning disability; however, it does make learning difficult. For example, it is hard to learn when you struggle to focus on what your teacher is saying or when you can’t seem to be able to sit down and pay attention to a book.

Can You Have ADHD and a Learning Disability?

Yes, you can have both; learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD often co-exist. In his book, “Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete Authoritative Guide for Parents,” Russell Barkley says children with ADHD are more likely to have a learning disability than children who do not have ADHD.

What Is the Connection Between Executive Functions, ADHD, and LD?

Learning involves using the executive functions of the brain particularly the ability to focus, pay attention, engage with a task and use working memory.  We know that ADHD affects the executive functions of the brain. In fact, Dr. Russell Barkley says an accurate name for ADHD could be ‘Developmental Disorder of Executive Functioning.’

Many people with ADHD can struggle with learning and school work because of the executive function problems related to their ADHD, yet they do not have enough of an impairment to be diagnosed with a LD.

When a person has co-existing conditions of ADHD and LD it means they have the broad impairment of executive functions combined with the impairment of the specific skills needed for reading writing and math.

What Are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities are neurological and are not a reflection of you or your child’s intelligence or how hard you are trying.

A popular way to describe LD’s  is that your brain is wired differently and you receive and process information in a different way. Learning disabilities can make reading, writing, spelling and math difficult. They also can affect your ability to organize and recall information, to listen and speak and can impact your short term and long term memory and timing.

Learning disabilities are not problems with learning as a result of vision or hearing problems or learning in a second language, etc. People with learning disabilities usually have average or above average intelligence and yet there a discrepancy between their achievements and their potential. However, with the right support and interventions they are able to close that gap and demonstrate their skills.

The term learning disabilities is a collective term for a range of specific learning challenges.

Here are some examples of LD: 

  • Dyslexia. Reading disorder
  • Dyscalculia. Math disorder
  • Dysgraphia. Writing disorder
  • Dyspraxia. Problems with motor skills 
  • Dysphasia/Aphasia. Problems with language 
  • Auditory Processing Disorder. 
  • Visual Processing Disorder

What Are the Effects of LD and ADHD?

Learning disabilities are often discovered in school because of problems with academic work. However, their effects go beyond the classroom walls. They can impact family relationships and life at home and work.

In addition, learning disabilities affect a child’s self-esteem.

There is a general assumption that if someone is smart, they do well in school. However, this is not necessarily the case for someone who has a LD and ADHD.

A learning disability means a pupil experiences problems with learning and demonstrating their knowledge in the traditional way.  In addition pupils with ADHD have difficulty conforming to the ideal behavior expected in schools, for example being able to sit still for long periods and pay attention without acting impulsive or daydreaming. A pupil realizes they are not able to do the tasks that other children seem to be doing easily. They can feel isolated and different.

Getting Diagnosed

When a person has more than one condition, it can be harder to recognize a second condition because they can mask each other. If you already have an ADHD diagnosis, it can be easy to attribute all your challenges to ADHD. In addition, in the same way that ADHD presents itself differently in everyone, so to do learning disabilities, which makes recognizing them harder—there is not a definitive checklist!

Like ADHD, there is a strong genetic component to learning disabilities. If you or your partner have a LD, your children could have one too.

Remember, knowledge is power. Learn as much as possible about learning disabilities and ADHD. If you or your child have already been diagnosed with ADHD and are following a treatment plan but still facing challenges, it could be that there is another condition present.

Who Can Make a Diagnosis?

Different specialists are qualified to test and diagnose different conditions. There might be variations depending on where you live and individual clinician’s qualification.

1) A clinical psychologist

They can evaluate for both ADHD and LD.

2) School psychologist 

If they are working in a school, they can evaluate for a  LD but not ADHD. However, if they are seen privately outside of school, they might be able to evaluate for ADHD.

3) Child psychiatrist

They can evaluate for ADHD but not a LD.

4) Educational psychologist

 They can evaluate for a LD and depending on their training, can evaluate for ADHD.

5) Neuropsychologist

They can evaluate for both ADHD and LD.

Remember to Treat both ADHD and LD!

It is important to treat and both ADHD and the LD.  For example, if your child is on medication to help with their ADHD, their learning disability problems will still persist.  Or if they are receiving assistance for their LD, they will not get the full benefit if they will be struggling with their focus and impulsivity.

Neither ADHD nor learning disabilities can be cured. However, that does not mean you or your child can not have a successful and happy life. There are many successful ADHDers with learning disabilities, including Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, and Dr Hallowell who has written over 20 books and helps millions of people with their ADHD challenges.

Sources:

Russell A. Barkley, PhD. Taking Charge of ADHD. The Complete Authoritative Guide for Parents. The Guilford Press 2013.

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