But there are a number of factors which complicate the matter of getting an ADHD diagnosis. For one, some of the behaviors associated with ADHD can be attributed to kids just acting like kids. Some are simply more fidgety and restless, and it can be tough for children to stay focused on subjects that they don’t find interesting, especially when they’re very young.
On top of that, there’s the fact that symptoms of ADHD often overlap with those of learning disabilities. There’s no question that having ADHD can make school more difficult for kids, but if that’s not the cause of the symptoms, then a different approach is needed.
Learn more about the differences between ADHD and learning disabilities, how to get an accurate diagnosis, and what to do when a child is dealing with one or both conditions.
What Do ADHD and Learning Disorders Have in Common?
Both ADHD and learning disabilities are neurodevelopmental disorders. And although ADHD is not a learning disability, the symptoms that the disorder causes often impair someone’s ability to learn. This is why it can be so tricky to determine whether ADHD or learning disabilities are the cause of a child’s difficulties.
It’s important to remember that another key similarity between learning disabilities and ADHD is that neither one is a reflection of someone’s intelligence. These disorders do not affect how smart someone is and what they’re capable of. Instead, it is a matter of that individual processing information in a different manner due to the way their brain is wired.
How Is ADHD Different from a Learning Disability?
Learning requires the use of executive functions, like focusing on a task and utilizing memory. ADHD primarily affects the areas of the brain which handle executive functions, which is why learning can be harder for someone with the disorder.
Learning disabilities are not necessarily tied to a specific executive dysfunction. They can involve a number of other neurodevelopmental challenges that affect someone’s ability to understand spoken words or numbers. For example, dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects the areas of the brain which process language.
With ADHD, it’s the symptoms themselves that cause learning difficulties. For example, if a child is hyperactive or can’t concentrate on a task, their academic performance is likely to suffer. Learning disabilities, on the other hand, are caused by processing problems in the brain involving reading, writing, or math.
The initial ways that ADHD and learning disabilities are detected can also point to some of the key differences between the two. For many kids with ADHD, reports of inappropriate classroom behavior (being easily distracted, excessive interrupting, fidgeting, or hyperactivity, etc.) are often some of the first signs that there may be an issue. With learning disabilities, struggles with academic work often serve as the earliest indicators.
That being said, the symptoms of ADHD and learning disabilities can vary from one person to the next, so these trends shouldn’t be used to confirm what the root issue is for a child’s behaviors. Instead, doctors must assess each child on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a learning disorder or ADHD is at play.
Getting an Accurate Diagnosis
If ADHD or a learning disorder is suspected, it’s important to see a professional for a formal evaluation. Typically, a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, neurologist, or clinical social worker will diagnose ADHD in children. This diagnosis requires a medical exam as well as a close look at behaviors and symptoms, including how often they occur, where they occur, and how severe they are.
Learning disabilities can be diagnosed by neurologists as well as clinical, education, and school psychologists. In addition to getting feedback from teachers and reviewing academic performance, these professionals typically conduct a series of tests to determine whether someone has a learning disability and, if so, what areas of learning are affected.
With both ADHD and learning disorders, a good doctor will also spend time ruling out other possible causes of the symptoms and behaviors being exhibited. For example, anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders could be contributing factors. In addition, some symptoms of learning disabilities or ADHD can overlap with autism spectrum disorder or hearing challenges. Ruling out other possible causes is important for getting the most accurate diagnosis.
A thorough evaluation will generally reveal whether an individual has ADHD or a learning disability. However, it’s not always that simple, and the diagnosis may be more complicated than expected if a child is found to have both conditions.
Coexisting ADHD and learning disabilities are actually quite common. In fact, it’s estimated that about 30% to 50% of children and adolescents with ADHD also have a learning disability. When these neurodevelopmental disorders co-occur, it can cause even more challenges for a child. Having a custom treatment plan in place is critical to making sure that both issues are addressed effectively.
Treatment Options for ADHD and Learning Disabilities
In most cases, the recommended pediatric ADHD treatments are medication and behavior therapy. Other options which may be incorporated include social skills training and family therapy.
For learning disabilities, a child’s school can help set up special education services, and parents can also seek out the help of reading specialists, tutors, and other educational professionals for one-on-one assistance. In the U.S., public schools are required to provide an individual education program (IEP) to children with certain learning disorders. Accommodations can also be made in the classroom, like longer test times or access to audiobooks.