ADHD is not a learning disability. However, some aspects of the condition, such as difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity, may impact a person’s ability to learn.

According to most researchers and learning disability organizations, ADHD can affect learning, and many people with ADHD have other learning disabilities. However, because this condition does not influence specific aspects of education, such as the ability to understand language or the written word, doctors do not usually consider it a learning disorder.

Keep reading to learn more about why ADHD is not a learning disability, how it can still affect learning, and some management tips.

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ADHD is not a learning disability. However, some of the symptoms may appear very similar to those of a learning disability. Rates of learning disorders are also higher among children with ADHD, while children with learning disorders are more likely to have an ADHD diagnosis.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists the following characteristics of specific learning disorders:

  • There are ongoing difficulties in writing, reading, arithmetic, math, or reasoning skills during the school years. Additionally, children may have trouble remembering facts, thinking clearly, or writing well.
  • A person’s academic skills appear below the average range. Here, tests must use culturally and linguistically appropriate testing to qualify for a diagnosis. For example, a child with dyslexia will experience a greater degree of reading difficulties and need to expend greater effort to read than those without dyslexia.
  • The difficulties must begin during the school years, not later in life.
  • Another disorder, such as a developmental or neurological issue, must not better explain the symptoms. For example, a child with ADHD may have trouble reading because of difficulties focusing, not dyslexia.

ADHD can impact many aspects of learning. The symptoms of this condition, and their effects on education, may include:

  • Reduced executive function: This makes it harder for a person to plan and coordinate their thoughts and actions. An individual may have issues starting assignments, keeping assignment deadlines, and regulating their emotions.
  • Hyperactivity: People with ADHD may have issues sitting still, waiting their turn, or remaining quiet. This can make it difficult for them to succeed in the classroom. It may also affect relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Trouble paying attention: People with ADHD may struggle to remain focused in school, which may affect their ability to learn. Attention difficulties can cause a student to experience challenges in performing well on tests, even when they know the material. This is because distraction prevents them from completing the assessment or understanding the questions.
  • Disorganization: Disorganization can make it hard for people with ADHD to study or prioritize tasks. It can also cause them to miss deadlines and forget schoolwork, affecting grades.
  • Impulsivity: ADHD can cause impulsive behavior — this can lead to a student getting into trouble at school. It may also lead them to make questionable decisions, such as not studying or doing homework.
  • Lack of attention to detail: Students with ADHD may rush through tasks or be unable to pay attention to small details. They might, for example, not notice an extra word in a question or fail to read or understand an academic assignment fully.

It is important to note that while ADHD can present challenges, there are also numerous benefits of having the conditions, some of which could even positively impact learning, such as resilience and positivity.

Learn more about ADHD in relationships.

No single test can diagnose ADHD or a learning disability. Rather, doctors and mental health professionals rely on diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 to diagnose both ADHD and learning disabilities. Additionally, having just one symptom is not enough — a person must have several symptoms of the diagnosis that interfere with daily life.

Some strategies for diagnosing these conditions include:

  • Physical and health history: While a physical exam will not diagnose ADHD or a learning disorder, it can rule out other causes, such as a head injury or infection.
  • Academic history: A healthcare professional may ask about a student’s academic record to assess the areas most difficult for them. For example, a child with good grades who only struggles with reading may have a reading-related learning disorder such as dyslexia.
  • Neuropsychological testing: A doctor may give several tests to a child to assess their attention, check for specific learning disabilities, and identify thinking or learning differences.
  • Developmental history: Due to the genetic components in learning disabilities and ADHD, a healthcare professional may ask about any family history of the conditions. To diagnose a child or adult with ADHD, a doctor will want to see evidence of ADHD symptoms across multiple phases of development and in various contexts.

Treating ADHD can help with learning-related symptoms. Try the following strategies:

  • Educate parents and teachers about ADHD: Support for adults who care for children with ADHD may help them better manage their symptoms.
  • Experiment with ADHD management strategies: Frequent reminders, calendar apps, a planner, or a special location where all school books go may reduce forgetfulness and stress.
  • Consider therapy: Psychotherapy can help a person learn to live with ADHD, develop coping strategies, and more effectively advocate for their needs at school.
  • Consider medication if the person with ADHD is older than 6 years of age: Stimulant medications can help a person concentrate, which may enable them to self-actualize at school.
  • Embrace a comprehensive treatment approach: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using stimulant medications in children under 6 years of age only when other interventions do not work. A combination of interventions works best at all ages.
  • Advocate for an individualized education plan: Work with teachers to develop a personalized education plan. Within this plan, advocate for accommodations at school, such as a distraction-free testing environment. Although ADHD is not a learning disorder, people with the condition generally have protection under the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, which entitles them to certain accommodations in school.

A person cannot self-diagnose ADHD or any other learning disability — a professional needs to assess their symptoms and rule out other underlying health conditions.

For most families, diagnosis begins with the family pediatrician, who can refer to an ADHD specialist such as a psychiatrist or mental health counselor. An individual can also independently search for their own mental health provider and request an appointment.

Seek help for ADHD or learning disabilities if a person:

  • thinks they might have ADHD or a learning disability
  • finds ADHD treatment is not effective
  • needs special accommodations at school
  • develops intolerable side effects associated with ADHD medication

ADHD is not a learning disability, as it does not affect a person’s ability to learn a specific skill set, such as reading, writing, or mathematics.

However, some effects of ADHD, such as difficulty concentrating, can lead to some challenges in learning.

The condition can make learning challenging, but it does not have to put a stop to a person’s academic dreams. People with ADHD can become successful learners and achieve great things in academia.

With the right combination of treatment and support, those with ADHD can thrive even in settings that require close attention and quiet.