From College of the Redwoods

Disability News
Is ADHD a Learning Disability?
Mar 3, 2014 - 9:29:10 AM


The question I pose to you today is whether or not attention deficit is considered a learning disability. There has been a long standing and ongoing misconception about this, and it continues to be an issue of confusion. The short answer to the question is no, ADHD is not a learning disability, even though there can be comorbidity. In other words, approximately 30% of individuals with ADHD also have a learning disability.

Even though ADHD is not a learning disability, it doesn’t mean that individuals with ADHD don’t have learning problems. Indeed they do. They have learning problems, not a learning disability. Someone with ADHD has, due to his or her inability to focus, difficulty learning in all cognitive areas all the time. It makes no difference the type of information being presented and no difference the setting where the information is being delivered. The problem, specifically the difficulty focusing on incoming material is present in all sensory channels, is present at all times.

With ADHD, the learning problem is more generalized than in a learning disability. Moreover, there are no standardized tests that will identify the condition. It is assessed by medical doctors or in some cases psychologists through the administration of behavioral checklists and inventories augmented by patient and parent report. Sometimes, a definitive diagnosis cannot be made until the individual’s response to stimulant medication has been evaluated. In individuals with ADHD, the frontal lobe of the brain and those areas dealing with focus are under-stimulated, and the stimulant medication brings those areas up to a homeostatic level at which the individual’s ability to focus is more “normal”. If a person who didn’t have ADHD took the same stimulant medications, they would be, as they say “bouncing off the walls” as the already stimulated brain is now over-stimulated. Unfortunately, some of the early versions of stimulant medication got a bad name and parents were and continue to be reluctant to put their kids on them.

On the other hand, medication does not improve the learning of an individual with a learning disability, nor typically can a medical doctor make the diagnosis. The diagnosis of a learning disability is best done by a psychologist, learning disability specialist, or speech-language pathologist.

In the case of a learning disability, the difficulties being experienced by the individual tend to be more defined. In ADHD, the individual has difficulty with all aspects of learning regardless of the modality. In the case of a learning disability, the problems are more specific to a modality, a subject area or a process. For example, the individual may have difficulty with spatial/non-verbal processing, therefore academically has difficulty with math, learning to read music, eye-hand coordination, art or any class involving building.

An individual with a verbal/language based learning disability may do fine with math concepts, but have difficulty with areas of academics requiring auditory and language skills. Note-taking, reading comprehension, math word problems, writing skills are more likely to be impacted. Typically retention of auditory/verbal material is also adversely affected.

A learning disability may not be modality related, but more related to input vs. output. The individual may be able to process incoming information, organize it and retain it but be unable to express that information either verbally or in writing. If the problem is reversed, and the individual has problems with understanding and retaining input, then the modality does have to be examined. If all modalities are involved, then ADHD is likely present rather than LD. If the input and retention is modality specific – verbal vs. non-verbal for example, then it is likely to be a learning disability. But remember, there is a 30% overlap of ADHD and LD.

Quotation of the Week
"Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence."
Abigail Adams, 1780


© Copyright by College of the Redwoods