What are learning and thinking differences?

At a glance

  • Learning differences are common.

  • They impact skills like reading, math, writing, and focus.

  • The challenges are lifelong, but people can still thrive.

Learning and thinking differences are lifelong challenges that impact skills like reading, writing, math, and focus. They’re caused by differences in how the brain processes information.

Some learning and thinking differences are learning disabilities like dyslexia. Others are difficulties with important skills people use for learning, for working, and in everyday living.

For the nearly 70 million people who have them, these differences can make school, work, and everyday life hard. But there are many supports that can help kids, young adults, and adults who think and learn differently thrive.

Learning and thinking differences fact sheetPDF

Types of learning and thinking differences

Dyslexia and ADHD are the most common and well-known differences. You probably know someone who has one or both — or maybe you have them yourself. ADHD, for example, is the most common condition in childhood. And an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people have dyslexia.

But there are other challenges you may not have heard of. For instance, dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. Experts think it’s as common as dyslexia.

Other challenges include:

Many people who learn and think differently struggle in more than one area. That’s because some conditions often occur together.

Myths and truths about learning and thinking differences

Despite all we know about learning and thinking differences, myths still exist. One is that these challenges aren’t real. Another is that people are just being lazy. There’s also a myth that people who learn and think differently can’t have successful careers.

Here’s the truth: Learning and thinking differences are real challenges that are based in biology.

Studies using brain scans have shown differences in how the brain functions and is structured. Experts also believe that genetics plays a role. Learning and thinking differences tend to run in families.

The biggest myth might be that people who learn and think differently aren’t smart. Learning and thinking differences aren’t related to intelligence. People who have them are as smart as other people. And they have strengths, talents, and interests that can help them work on challenges.

Learning and thinking differences impact people in different ways. But there are strategies and supports at school and at work that can help kids and adults thrive.

Key takeaways

  • Learning and thinking differences are based in biology.

  • People who have them are as smart as other people.

  • Some differences are disabilities, like dyslexia and ADHD.

About the author

About the author

The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Trynia Kaufman, MS was the senior manager of editorial research at Understood. She is a former educator and presents nationwide at education conferences.


Explore related topics