ADHD on its own is not considered a learning disability, but manifestations of the condition tend to impair the ability to learn. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), however, ADHD does qualify as a disability and make students eligible to receive services for special education. IDEA defines the term “Specific Learning Disability” (SLD) as a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia”. Although ADHD does not itself qualify as a learning disability, research suggests an estimated 30-50% of children with ADHD have a specific learning disability, and interaction between the two conditions can cause extreme difficulty with learning. The definition proposed by IDEA does not specifically refer to ADHD as an eligible condition, but its description aligns with many forms of its manifestation. The DSM-V, however, defines a Specific Learning Disorder as “a neurodevelopmental disorder of biological origin manifested in learning difficulty and problems in acquiring academic skills markedly below age level and manifested in the early school years, lasting for at least 6 months; not attributed to intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, or neurological or motor disorders”. Subtypes of impairment disorders listed in the manual apply to reading in the form of dyslexia, written expression in the form of dysgraphia, and mathematics in the form of dyscalculia. Learning disorders are believed to be caused by problems in the nervous system that affect receiving, processing, or communicating information, and possibly by genetics. Though they may have a significant effect on the way a child learns, and may cause problems in learning settings, learning disabilities do not impact intelligence. Children who have a learning disorder as well as ADHD, experience an overlap of symptoms, including difficulty with attention, task management, and organization, which can create a barrier to success in school.
Estimates of the co-occurrence of learning disabilities with ADHD vary by study, but tend to range between 30% to 50%. The Learning Disabilities Association of America suggests that 20% to 30% of children with ADHD also have a Specific Learning Disability. One study states that 50% of children and adolescents with ADHD also have a learning disability, while another stated that 70% of children with ADHD also have a learning disability. Specifically, the study stated that a learning disability affecting written expression was two times more common than one affecting reading, math, or spelling at 65%. Either way, studies suggest that children with ADHD but no diagnosed learning disorder tend to have some degree of a problem with learning, whereas children with a diagnosed learning disorder but no ADHD experienced some degree of attentional difficulty. These findings propose that learning and attention are interrelated in some way, and seem to coexist on a continuum.
Research has also found that the association between ADHD and learning difficulty is rooted in inattention rather than the hyperactive-impulsive form of ADHD. There is a degree of symptom overlap between ADHD and learning disorders, such as shared experiences of working memory deficits and processing speed difficulty. No cognitive or behavioral constructs have been identified, however, as the sole or primary reason behind the association between ADHD and learning disorders.
Appropriately and effectively treating mental health requires an accurate understanding of the conditions experienced by an individual. When conditions share symptoms, or when they co-occur, it can complicate diagnosis. A helpful treatment plan includes support in academics, the workplace, and social relationships. Treating just one of multiple disorders a child is experiencing may fail to properly amend problems in school or work - for example a child with ADHD and a learning disorder who is on stimulant medication may sit still and pay attention and still struggle to absorb information and learning material. Because these disorders are developmental, they tend to last into adulthood, though they are often hidden by strategies developed to mitigate symptoms. This is why it is important for individuals with both conditions to learn how to live with both. Children with ADHD and learning disabilities qualify for specialized assistance in school, which is typically precluded by a thorough evaluation to gauge the source of issues and appropriate intervention tactics. Family members, healthcare providers, and schools can work together to identify appropriate referrals and treatment plans for each individual child and their personal struggles.
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Learning Disabilities Association of America. (n.d.). ADHD. LDA. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://ldaamerica.org/disabilities/adhd/
Mayes, S. D., Calhoun, S. L., & Crowell, E. W. (2000). Learning Disabilities and ADHD: Overlapping Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(5), 417–424. https://doi.org/10.1177/002221940003300502
Silver, L. (2022, March 31). Half of All Kids with ADHD Have a Learning Disability or Related Condition. ADDitude. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/half-of-all-kids-with-adhd-have-a-learning-disability-or-related-condition/U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2022, August 9). Other Concerns and Conditions with ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/conditions.html