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Is ADHD a Learning Disability?

Written by Sarah Norman

Review by Alina Ivan

Tagged in

  • adhd


Sep 7, 2023, 8 min read

If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, think you might have it, or know someone who has ADHD, you may have some questions as you seek to understand the condition more. Through trying to better understand ADHD, many people want to categorise it in some way, and may wonder whether or not this is classed as a learning disability.

Here, we will give an overview of ADHD, whether or not it falls under the category of a learning disability, and everything you need to know about treatment, diagnosis and more.

Is ADHD a learning disability?

At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD, we’re here to help.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is an acronym that stands for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. It is a type of neurodivergence which means the brain is hard-wired differently to neurotypical individuals.

In children, ADHD can cause symptoms that mean they struggle to play quietly, or take instruction without distraction. They may also present symptoms of hyperactivity, but do keep in mind that ADHD tends to present differently in girls than in boys. Girls may display less hyperactivity features, and instead show more inattentive features.

In adults, ADHD can cause symptoms including trouble focusing, impulsive behaviours, and an inability to pay attention for long periods of time. This can disrupt everyday life and make certain things harder such as studying, working, organising, managing time, remembering things, getting tasks done, or learning new things. Its impact on learning is why many people question whether or not it is a learning disability.

Is ADHD classed as a learning disability?

In short, no. ADHD is not classed as a learning disability, although some ADHD symptoms are similar to those found in people with certain learning disabilities, so ADHD is sometimes mistakenly included in this category. Also, the prevalence of learning disorders is higher in children who have ADHD, and learning disabilities and ADHD often co-exist, which is another reason for instances of misdiagnoses.

Is ADHD considered a learning disability?

What "counts" as a learning disability?

A learning disability is a disorder affecting a person’s ability to understand or use language (either spoken or written), do maths calculations, coordinate their movement, or direct attention. Some examples of learning disabilities might include things like Dyslexia (a reading disorder), and Dyspraxia (when an individual has problems with their motor skills).

Learning disabilities can be noticed in very young children, but similarly to ADHD, they are most often identified after a child has started school.

Why do some people consider ADHD a learning disability?

Some of the symptoms of ADHD are very similar to the symptoms of other conditions and learning disabilities, so it’s no surprise that some people mistakenly assume ADHD comes under the umbrella of learning disability.

The difference is not in the traits displayed, but in the reason behind them; a learning disability is a condition that makes it difficult for a person to acquire skills like reading, maths or motor skills, while ADHD is a condition that makes it difficult for a person to access functions such as the ability to focus, control impulsive behaviour and more. Learning disabilities directly impact the act of learning, while ADHD indirectly impacts learning, but is not a learning disability.

Learning disabilities are usually discovered in school because they affect things like reading, writing, spelling, doing mathematical calculations, organising, recalling information, listening, speaking, and getting timing correct – all of which impact school progress. While children with ADHD may not have issues learning any of these skills, they can find it difficult to fit into behaviours that would be expected in schools, such as sitting down for a long time and focusing on what the teacher is saying.

People may mistake a child with a learning disability as having ADHD or vice versa, because the symptoms can be similar, but the two can also co-exist. In fact, rates of hyperactivity tend to increase as the severity of a learning disability increases, and the two must be taken into account when treating symptoms.  

ADHD is often misdiagnosed as other conditions, such as bipolar disorder, autism, sensory processing disorder, or even something like being a ‘gifted child’, or simply being too young for their school year. Misdiagnoses can be dangerous and negatively impact the development of a child, as some parents and teachers may seek to implement incorrect measures to manage symptoms. Any diagnosis of ADHD should be made by a qualified professional.

What DOES "count" as a learning disability, if not ADHD?

How do you know if you have ADHD?

ADHD has a variety of symptoms that fall into one of two categories; inattentiveness, or hyperactivity (although you can also have both).

Some signs of inattention could include things like making a lot of careless mistakes, always losing important things (keys, phones, etc.), or forgetting important things like appointments. Some signs of hyperactivity could include restlessness, fidgeting, squirming, talking excessively, interrupting before others have finished, and difficulty waiting their turn.

There are a number of other specific ADHD symptoms that are more relevant to adult life, such as ADHD burnout, impulse spending, and more. If you are concerned that any of these things could be related to ADHD, it’s best to speak to a professional with experience in helping people with these issues.

What to do if you think you may have ADHD

If you think some of the above symptoms sound familiar to you, there is a chance you could have ADHD, but you would need a formal diagnosis to know this for sure. Seeking a diagnosis for ADHD often starts with speaking to your GP about symptoms, or to a qualified professional in a private consultation.

ADHD can range from very mild to severe, so it is important to know where you sit on the scale (if at all). You can find out what treatment options would be best for you by speaking to an ADHD specialist – find out more about the support available and what is involved in a private ADHD assessment, here.

How is ADHD diagnosed in children?

If you are pursuing a potential ADHD diagnosis for your child, and they display a pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity that interferes with their life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses the following criteria to diagnose the condition:

Inattention Symptoms

Children up to age 16 years of age display six or more symptoms of inattention, and for those aged 17 years or older, five or more symptoms are displayed. These symptoms of inattention will have been present for at least 6 months, and are not consistent with their developmental level:

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities
  • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g. loses focus, side-tracked)
  • Often has trouble organising tasks and activities
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework)
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones)
  • Is often easily distracted
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities

Hyperactivity and Impulsivity

Children up to age 16 years of age display six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity, and for those aged 17 years or older, five or more symptoms are displayed. These symptoms of inattention will have been present for at least 6 months, and are disruptive to their developmental level:

  • Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat
  • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected
  • Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless)
  • Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly
  • Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”
  • Often talks excessively
  • Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed
  • Often has trouble waiting their turn
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g. butts into conversations or games)

In addition, the below conditions must also be true:

  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years
  • Several symptoms are present in two or more settings (such as at home, school or work, with friends or relatives, in other activities)
  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning
  • The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder (such as a mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or a personality disorder). The symptoms do not happen only during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder.
Diagnosis of ADHD in children

How is ADHD diagnosed in adults?

ADHD is often discovered in school, but it can also continue on into adulthood. Diagnosing ADHD in adults is very similar to the above criteria set out by the CDC, however, in adults and adolescents aged 17+ years, the number of symptoms required to achieve a diagnosis is 5, instead of the 6 required from younger children.

While the symptoms are the same, they can manifest differently in adults than in children. For example, children with ADHD might struggle to play quietly with friends due to hyperactivity, while an adult with ADHD may also have hyperactivity, but this is displayed as extreme restlessness.

How is ADHD treated?

At Augmentive, we believe advice and support for those with ADHD should always be bespoke and tailored to the individual to help with their specific symptoms. Therefore it is best to reach out to a qualified specialist with experience in treating ADHD so they can rule out any learning disabilities, help to understand your symptoms and brain more, and recommend different types of therapies or medication to manage ADHD.

If you are looking for ADHD treatment either for yourself or a loved one, you will find a useful guide to ADHD medication in the UK here, and you may want to explore different types of therapies, such as:

  • Psychoeducation – where patients are encouraged to discuss ADHD and its effects on their life
  • Behavioural therapy – where rewards are used to help children control symptoms
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – where people with ADHD learn to manage day-to-day issues they face by changing their thoughts and behaviours
Finding support for management of ADHD

If you have a question about a mental health condition, like ADD vs ADHD, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.

Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment or review, to broader private mental health care.

Not sure where to start?

We offer a free 15 minute consultation so that we can guide you to the most relevant professionals