The Connection between ADHD and Learning Disabilities

The month of October has been dedicated to celebrating ADHD awareness as well as Learning Disabilities awareness.  Although these are two different brain-based disorders, there are many connections between the two and children and adults can often show co-occurring conditions of both ADHD and LD.  In fact, approximately 45% percent of children and adolescents with ADHD also have some type of learning disability (LD), such as a reading disability (dyslexia), writing disability (dysgraphia), or math disability (dyscalculia).  The presence of a LD may explain why a child with ADHD on medication can sit still and stay focused and yet still do poorly academically.  Parents and teachers may feel at a loss for the best treatments and educational strategies for such youth.

What is ADHD?

Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) find it unusually difficult to concentrate on tasks, to pay attention, to sit still, and to control impulsive behavior.  Such challenges occur across multiple settings, and is developmental in nature (such symptoms do not just occur “out of the blue” but rather have occurred over a period of time across their development).  Furthermore, their inability to settle down, focus, and follow through on tasks in age-appropriate ways makes it very hard for them to do what is expected of them at school and at home.  While ADHD can make learning difficult, it is not the same as a learning disability.

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a neurological disorder and results from a difference in the way a person’s brain is “wired.”  Learning disabilities can occur across reading, writing, or mathematical tasks and reflect an unexpected weakness in specific academic domains.  Such kids may be just as smart as other same-aged peers; however, they may struggle to learn specific academic skills that come more easily to their peers.  Such disabilities can make many areas of academics difficult and in the absence of explicit and specialized teaching, can result in academic delays and under-achievement.  Common signs of a reading disability could include difficulty rhyming, trouble matching sounds (e.g., phonemes) with letters, putting sounds in the right order, comprehension challenges, or taking a long time than expected to read written material.

ADHD and LD – What’s the Overlap?

There are many strengths for individuals who have ADHD and/or LD’s.  For example, such individuals can be intelligent, have creative ways of completing tasks, and think “out of the box.”  At the same time, we know that for individuals with ADHD and/or LD, there are real challenges that can be impactful.  One key area of overlap is the development and application of executive functioning skills.  Whether it be breaking down a project into smaller chunks, inefficient use of strategies, or knowing how to minimize distractions while studying, executive functioning skills are often the bridge between translating knowledge into successful academic outcomes.  These skills are often a struggle for people with ADHD as well as for people with a learning disability.

How to Diagnose?

While overlapping symptoms can make it challenging to distinguish between ADHD and LD, a formal evaluation can provide a comprehensive snapshot of overall functioning, and disentangle the potential role of ADHD and LD.  Such an evaluation needs to encompass a thorough parent interview, discussion with outside teachers and providers, as well as direct evaluation using valid and reliable measures.


To learn more about ADHD and LD’s, check out the following:

The Relationship Between ADHD and Learning Disabilities

Parents’ Guide to ADHD

Growing Up with ADHD

Learning Disabilities and ADHD
What is LD?

Is It ADHD or Immaturity?

The Importance of ADHD Awareness