General Education

ADHD is not a Learning Disability

ADHD is not a Learning Disability
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Jules Csillag February 8, 2019

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Saying ADHD is not a Learning Disability is not merely an opinion (although I welcome that view as well), it is a biological, educational, and legal fact, too. Read below to learn how Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a Specific Learning Disability.

One reason there is great confusion about ADHD and learning is because many students have both: According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America [], “30-50 percent of children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability, and ... the two conditions can interact to make learning extremely challenging." There are also ways in which ADHD can impact learning in other ways, but the two are discrete disorders or differences.

The Biological Perspective

The brains of students with Specific Learning Disabilities and students with ADHD are different. To read successfully, people typically use three primary parts of their brains, two in the back, one in the front, and mostly in the left hemisphere. Imaging studies on individuals with Specific Learning Disabilities with an Impairment in Reading or Writing (also known as Dyslexia and Dysgraphia, respectively) suggest that the primary difference between their brains and that of a typically developing reader is that people with dyslexia have an underactivation in the back regions of their brains, but have an overactivation in the front regions of their brains, bilaterally (on both sides) (Shaywitz, 2003).

In turn, imaging studies on individuals with ADHD show that there are “significant differences in the sizes of four regions in the brain: the corpus callosum, the basal ganglia, the frontal lobes and the cerebellar vermis," which are all deep brain structures (Hallowell, 2006 as cited in Lanir, 2011).These areas are involved in “thinking, paying attention, and planning," according to the National Institutes of Health.

All in all, whereas the reading and writing neural circuits are the predominant difficulty with many individuals with Specific Learning Disabilities, it is the reward and decision-making circuits that are the primary differences in the brains of individuals with ADHD, and individuals who do not have ADHD.

The Legal Perspective

Students who are eligible for specialized instruction at public schools typically fall into one of a few categories. Students with Specific Learning Disabilities tend to receive an Individualized/ Education Plan (IEP), and the reason for their eligibility is “Specific Learning Disability," which includes anything from dyslexia to dyscalculia, encompassing difficulties from reading fluency or comprehension to math problem-solving.

Conversely, individuals a diagnosis of ADHD tend to fall under “Other Health Impairment" (since it is not a Specific Learning Disability), and they may not get an IEP, but instead, a/ 504 plan to provide them with accommodations to help them succeed.

The Educational Perspective

Given the underlying neural differences for students with ADHD compared to students with Specific Learning Disabilities, the best way to educate each population will necessarily vary. Reading takes a lot of attention, so in earlier grades, students with ADHD may struggle with reading, but often their reading is marked by inconsistency. It seems that some days they “know how to read," and the next day “they forget." I have seen this in many of my students with ADHD.

ADHD can impact reading, though, indirectly. Particularly after 4th grade when phonics have been mastered, students with ADHD may experience difficulty with reading because reading requires a lot of attention. According to research done at Johns Hopkins University, given the attentional demands of fluent reading, students with ADHD may have a slower processing speed, reading fluency, and doing multitasking related to reading. Therefore, they suggest that “children with ADHD can benefit from separating writing and listening activities, avoiding the multi-tasking demand (e.g., allowing them to record lessons or by providing an outline of lecture materials)." They also suggest that educators “reducing the demands for multitasking, speeded performance, and simultaneous writing and listening" whenever possible.

The Social Perspective

There is also another view that ADHD is not a Learning Disability, given the pejorative nature of the word “disability," and the multiple benefits of individuals with ADHD (although there are many positives/ to having a Specific Learning Disability, too). For example, Eye to Eye a mentorship program for individuals with LD and ADHD write, “We like to think, ‘It’s not a learning disability, it’s this ability to think differently". Indeed, there are several benefits to having ADHD, including creativity , hyperfocus, and an ability to achieve “flow" or spontaneity, which are useful for daily activities as well as musical ones, such as improvisational jazz and rap.

Read more about What Every Parent Should Know about ADHD, Dyslexia, and Dysgraphia on Noodle.

Shaywitz, S. E. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Vintage Books.