How to Tell ADHD and Learning Disabilities Apart

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can cause learning difficulties, thus it is sometimes referred to as a learning disability. But that designation is not accurate. ADHD and learning disabilities do share some common traits, but they have different and distinctive causes.

Brain development in children with ADHD

While the exact cause of ADHD is unknown, scientists have found differences in brain development in those with ADHD. Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that certain regions of the brain, such as those that are integral in cognitive and motor control, were smaller in kids with ADHD than in children without ADHD in a 2011 study. Children with the smaller brain volumes were reported by their parents to have hyperactivity and impulsivity.

David Mandelbaum, M.D., Ph.D., of the Child Neurology Foundation also reports that, along with other key brain development differences, there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain in children with ADHD — due to low dopamine levels — when compared to children without ADHD. The low activity in these brain regions can result in attention problems, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Based on the low levels of dopamine, ADHD is thought, at least in part, to be caused by a chemical problem with the brain. ADHD is considered a medical problem and is diagnosed by a medical doctor or health care provider.

Brain functioning in learning disabilities

Different regions of the brain communicate with one another through the neural networks — the electric wiring of the brain. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in children and adults with learning disabilities, it is the wiring that experiences difficulties. In other words, the regions of the brain aren’t effectively communicating with one another, resulting in processing problems.

These neurological differences affect the ability to receive, store, process, retrieve, and communicate information, which in turn can result in difficulties with speech, reading, writing, following directions, and problem solving. Learning disabilities are often diagnosed by a school psychologist after identifying a pattern of poor educational performance and a psycho-educational assessment.

Comparing ADHD and learning disabilities

It is possible to have ADHD alone, a learning disability without ADHD, or both. According to the Learning Disability Association of America, between 20 and 30 percent of children with ADHD also have a learning disability.

"Learning disabilities" is an umbrella term that includes difficulties in a number of different areas. These include:

  • Dyslexia: problems with reading and writing, while letters often appear jumbled or are reversed when written

  • Dyscalculia: difficulty with math, including numbers, and telling time

  • Auditory processing disorder: confusing similar-sounding words

  • Visual processing disorder: a mismatch between what the eyes see and what the brain understands or thinks it is seeing

The main symptoms of ADHD include inattention, poor concentration, inability to sit still for long periods of time, and reacting without thinking. These symptoms can cause problems with learning and look similar to a learning disability, but not because of processing problems in the brain. An inability to pay attention and focus can resemble memory problems. Becoming easily distracted can also look similar to learning problems in that a child might miss important details or easily forget what he is supposed to do. For children with ADHD, falling behind in academic skills is usually a result of poor attention skills.

ADHD is often treated with a combination of stimulant medication and behavioral strategies. There is no medical treatment for learning disabilities; however, learning strategies can be modified to help children with learning disabilities better learn and retain information.

Finally, children with ADHD and learning disabilities can both suffer from low self-esteem. As they struggle to keep up, feel disconnected from other students, or continue to experience setbacks, their self-image suffers.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.