While there are many different disorders, several of them often overlap in some way. Therefore, if you or your child has been diagnosed with one disorder, you may see symptoms of one or more other disorders. One of the most commonly found cases of this overlap is with Learning Disorders (LD) and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In fact, some research suggests that up to 90% of individuals diagnosed with either LD or ADHD at one point will eventually be diagnosed with the other.
Learning Disorders are generally characterized by significant relative weaknesses in reading, mathematics, or writing based on an individual’s age, education level, and intelligence. If your child has a history of problems with school work along with difficulties understanding and processing information, listening, reasoning, and expressing thoughts, he may have a Learning Disorder that interferes with the learning process.
Of course, attention is necessary for learning, so the frequent co-occurrence of LD and ADHD is not surprising. In fact, attention and learning are so interconnected, that a problem in one area will often negatively impact the other. For example, imagine your child has a Reading Disorder and is asked to read something silently and then complete an assignment on it. Your child may experience significant difficulty processing information, understanding it, and storing that information in memory, causing the work in a typical classroom to be overwhelming, and perhaps too difficult. The result is much like what might occur when you read the passage below:
“According to the special theory of relativity, the equations which express the general laws of nature pass over into equations of the same form when, by making use of the Lorentz transformation, we replace the space-time variables x, y, z, t, of a (Galileian) reference-body K by the space-time variables x’, y’, z’, t’, of a new reference-body K’. According to the general theory of relativity, on the other hand, by application of arbitrary substitutions of the Gauss variables x1, x2, x3, x4, the equations must pass over into equations of the same form; for every transformation (not only the Lorentz transformation) corresponds to the transition of one Gauss co-ordinate system into another.”
— Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
While you may not have a Learning Disorder, this passage was likely difficult to understand (unless you study rocket-science). If so, your experience reading this passage may be somewhat similar to what your child with LD might experience every day in their classroom. Now imagine having to do this for several hours throughout a school day. In this case, it would be realistic to assume that your child’s teacher would report several symptoms of ADHD as well, such as difficulty sustaining attention, not completing work, low persistence or avoidance of unpleasant or difficult tasks, frequent frustration, and low self-esteem. This would also probably lead to task avoidance as people tend to steer clear of things that constantly result in failure and frustration; this is what may lead to complaints about your child being out of their seat, distractible, and disruptive to others. In this case, a Learning Disorder is interfering with your child’s ability to sustain attention and demonstrate persistence, and so it looks like ADHD even though learning problems are largely responsible for the behavior.
Now consider the other direction of the relationship. If your child has ADHD, his attention problem will often lead to his missing instruction, even if he is in the classroom. If your child is the Inattentive Type, he may sit at his desk quietly while daydreaming or drawing pictures in his notebook. If your child is the Hyperactive-Impulsive Type, he may fidget and squirm in his desk, tap his pencils, and talk to his friends during class. Either way, your child is not fully engaged in the learning process. Over time, this can lead to large gaps of knowledge, particularly in a curriculum that requires previously learned knowledge to master new knowledge. This is much like reading 10 pages of a novel, skipping 20, reading 10 more, skipping 20 more, and so on, and then trying to follow along with the plot and talk about it knowledgeably. An expected result may be below grade level performance and missed opportunities to learn. In this case, the attention concerns interfere with your child’s entire learning process. These cycles and negative experiences can be extremely frustrating and challenging for your child, and even lead to a child cutting class, claiming he is sick, or deliberately getting in trouble just to avoid the frustration of being in class.
Given the bi-directional relationship of LD and ADHD, and their complex interactions with your child’s school environment, appropriate diagnosis and treatment becomes challenging. Treating LD with stimulant ADHD medication alone, for example, is not appropriate. Likewise, school-based academic interventions alone will be ineffective in fully addressing ADHD. Treatments should therefore incorporate various strategies to address the strengths and weaknesses of your child. As both LD and ADHD are identified through observation of a pattern of behaviors (as opposed to an objective blood test that is either “positive” or “negative”), it is important for you to seek a thorough evaluation that assesses a wide array of cognitive and behavioral functions to determine if your child’s problems are related to learning difficulties, attention problems, or both. Only after the nature of your child’s problems is clearly identified can an effective treatment program be developed.