Is ADHD a Learning Disability -Understanding Neurodiversity


By Skills for Health | 15 March 2021

ADHD has long been misunderstood. Once dismissed as “naughty children”, those who deal with the condition deal with a range of daily issues that they have little control over. It certainly affects executive function, but is ADHD a learning disability?

Wrapped up in such a simple question are layers of issues around definitions, support, and putting labels on people:

  • What ADHD is and what it looks like
  • The difference between a learning difficulty and a disability
  • How ADHD interacts with learning difficulties
  • Getting the diagnosis of ADHD and co-occurrences right

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a difference in the way the brain is wired, known as being neurodiverse. People with ADHD have problems regulating their executive functions which start to show in early childhood – doctors generally say they should be visible from around six years of age.

The way it presents in kids can have them be seen as disruptive, naughty, and lacking discipline. This is how society interprets their issues and lacks an understanding of what ADHD actually is.

The full causes aren’t known but it is known that ADHD runs in families; if you’re dealing with it as an adult, chances are that your kids are too. Other factors that have been identified include being born before 37 weeks gestation and those with epilepsy.

In and of itself, ADHD is neither a learning difficulty nor a learning disability. It does, however, co-occur with a range of learning difficulties such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia.

Symptoms of ADHD

ADHD will manifest in a range of ways, including but not limited to:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Being very talkative
  • Interrupting conversations
  • Struggling to organise tasks
  • Making rash or impulsive decisions
  • Lacking the ability to concentrate

These symptoms can often mask other issues like learning difficulties. If a child can’t sit still long enough to read a book, how can their teacher know they’re struggling?

It’s important to note that these issues persist into adulthood and can feed into mental health and social problems. We’re going to be looking at how this can be mitigated a little later.

What’s the link between ADHD and learning difficulties?

Numbers vary by source but somewhere between 30 to 50 per cent of people diagnosed with ADHD will have a co-occurrence of a learning difficulty. It’s not so easy to unravel the challenges of one with another, but it is important.

With ADHD, you want to learn and have the skills to read or do sums, but your brain won’t let you focus and choose to get the learning done. A learning disability means you can have all the focus in the world but reading a page of text or a sheet of sums just isn’t something your brain can do.

Executive function comes into both of them – someone who struggles with reading due to dyslexia can get frustrated, give up quickly, or get distracted and this can look like ADHD. Flip that around and someone with ADHD probably doesn’t perform at school or work to their best abilities and this can look like they have difficulties learning.

Why does the right diagnosis matter?

It’s easy to assume that since ADHD is a broad condition affecting lots of areas that managing that will make the learning difficulties go away. This is far from true – you may be able to bring hyperactivity or inattentiveness under control but that still leaves the struggle with maths, reading, writing, or coordination.

That’s is you or your child is able to get a diagnosis at all. We’ve already said how hard it can be to get a referral – having that referral then miss some issues or misdiagnose them can cause bigger issues.

Mental health issues like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder can arise in people who don’t get the right support. No matter how much support a child gets with their reading skills, if they still lack focus due to undiagnosed and untreated ADHD then it’ll be for nothing.

Intelligence isn’t affected in ADHD or any of the associated learning difficulties, but academic or professional performance definitely is. Without the right support – coloured screen filters or visual learning for example – it can seem like someone with this type of neuro-divergence can’t do their work. Knowing how their brain works differently on a detailed and overall level can help to put in place the right accommodations.

Consequences of misdiagnosis

When a neurodiverse person doesn’t get the right or complete diagnosis, they’re being set up for failure. Although having a label might seem counterproductive to some, it can help that person be confident that they have an issue that comes with answers.

Being able to access support systems such as workplace accommodations under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) or additional educational support in school are important to make neurodiverse people able to interact with the world on their terms.

Knowing the right terms give the right support and can aid in social situations. Being able to tell your family that your child isn’t naughty, they just need to be treated a little different, can make their life, and yours as a parent, much easier.

Is ADHD a learning disability?

Although classed a disability under the DDA due to its effects on everyday life, ADHD isn’t a disability that affects a person’s ability to learn. The co-occurrence of learning difficulties that can get missed or wrapped up inside an ADHD diagnosis can make learning in school and throughout life a struggle.

ADHD shouldn’t be a catch-all diagnosis. Neurodiversity is more than just a brain being wired differently – it comes with specific challenges and issues that need to be addressed individually. Parents, doctors, and those working with people with ADHD need to take into account all the different challenges people will face.

Having these four words associated with you or your child should be a starting point to understand how to learn, engage with the world, and learn new skills to help you adapt. Learning can be done in a variety of ways and even with difficulties like dyslexia or dyscalculia, those with ADHD can still achieve their potential.

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