How a Learning Disorder Can Imitate ADHD


“Joseph isn’t paying attention in class and he has trouble keeping his hands to himself. We think he might have ADHD.” 


No parent wants to hear these words from their child’s teacher. It is upsetting to learn that your child zones out in school or submits incomplete or sloppy work, and being told that it’s your kid who disrupts the work of other students can be embarrassing. But if the teacher thinks it’s attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), then it must be, right?


Not necessarily. Many other issues can make it challenging to pay attention in school, and hyperactive or impulsive behavior can be the result of any one of a multitude of underlying root causes. For example, a learning disorder, or a specific significant impairment in reading, mathematics and/or writing, can mimic symptoms of ADHD. While both ADHD and learning disorders are brain-based conditions that start in childhood, their causes and their treatment are very different. 


Overlapping Symptoms


Even seasoned educators can mistake ADHD for a learning disorder, or vice-versa. This is because there are some common overlapping symptoms that are especially evident in the classroom. These can include:  


  • Inattention: Children with both ADHD and learning disorders can have difficulty paying attention, completing work carefully, and sustaining focus when attempting longer or more complex tasks.  


  • Disorganization: Individuals with both conditions may exhibit disorganized behaviors, such as losing items frequently, being forgetful, and having a messy living or workspace.


  • Difficulty with academic tasks: While children with learning disorders struggle with school tasks, those with ADHD may also have trouble learning because of problems with working memory or processing speed.  


  • Low frustration tolerance and impulsivity: When children are anxious or frustrated, they have difficulty controlling their impulses and they tend to act out. While impulsivity is a core feature of ADHD, a child with a learning disorder who is struggling to keep up with academic demands will often show frustration by demonstrating poor behavioral control.  


Differences between ADHD and Learning Disorders


While there are significant symptom overlaps, there are several key differences between ADHD and learning disorders.


  • Onset and development:  ADHD symptoms often are evident beginning in early childhood and can be seen in other environments besides school, such as the home or the playground. Learning disorders typically become noticeable when a child begins formal schooling and starts to struggle with academic tasks.


  • Response to interventions: Individuals with learning disorders often respond positively to targeted educational interventions. Those with ADHD will likely require a more broad-based approach, such as behavioral therapies or medication.


  • Specific academic challenges: Learning disorders are challenges in specific areas, such as dyslexia (reading), dyscalculia (math), or dysgraphia (writing), although inattention and frustration may be evident beyond the academic setting. The effects of ADHD almost always extend beyond the classroom because of difficulties with organization, misperception of time, and problems with flexible thinking.  


  • Family history: ADHD has a stronger genetic component; if one person in a family has ADHD, it is highly likely that other family members have it as well. Learning disorders are also genetic but less so, and parents often report that their child is the first in the family to receive this diagnosis. 


Assessment is Essential


An accurate assessment is essential in order to provide appropriate intervention. If your child is having academic and behavioral issues, a careful evaluation by a qualified professional such as a licensed psychologist is crucial. Rushing to treat symptoms of inattention and distractibility without understanding their cause can lead to ineffective interventions and unnecessary frustration for individuals and their families.


The expert psychologists at Elements Psychological Services can provide a comprehensive assessment to help you understand why your child is struggling and what can be done to help. Through careful evaluation of the nuances of behavior and learning issues, we can provide individuals with the support they need to thrive academically and personally, regardless of whether they are dealing with ADHD, a learning disorder, or a combination of both. Don’t hesitate to reach out and make an appointment today.