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What’s the Difference Between Learning Disabilities and Learning and Attention Issues?

By Bob Cunningham

My daughter has been struggling in school for a while now, and I’m thinking about requesting an evaluation. I’ve been reading about IEPs and am trying to understand why learning and attention issues are sometimes called learning disabilities. What’s the difference between these two terms?

Bob Cunningham

Advisor-in-Residence, Understood

The short answer is that “learning and attention issues” is a broader, less formal term. It includes some conditions that may not meet the legal definition of “learning disability.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines “specific learning disability” as: “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”

That definition covers a lot. But “specific learning disability” is just one of 13 categories of disability covered under IDEA. ADHD is covered under a different category (“other health impairment”). Communication disorders are covered under yet another category (“speech or language impairment”). And in the real world, people use lots of different terms to describe issues that may or may not be covered by IDEA’s definition.

This has been a touchy subject ever since the 1960s when psychologist Samuel Kirk used the term “learning disabilities” at an education conference. He was describing kids who unexpectedly struggle with aspects of learning. Teachers, lawmakers and many parents latched onto the term. But many doctors and clinical researchers continued to use a different set of terms.

Fast-forward to today, and you might notice discrepancies like these in many places. Let’s say your child has dyscalculia. Your school’s evaluation team might say he has a “specific learning disability in mathematics.” But a doctor might diagnose him as having a “specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics.” And your mother might tell your great-aunt that he has “math dyslexia” or “number dyslexia.”

If this name game seems complicated to you, you’re not alone. It can stump lots of people. Even clinicians use two different sets of codes for diagnosis and billing purposes.

For example, let’s say your child has executive functioning issues. The latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) has a code for “frontal lobe and executive function deficit.” But many psychologists make diagnoses based on the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 does not yet recognize executive functioning issues as an official condition.

The good news is that lawmakers built some flexibility into IDEA. It mentions some issues by name, such as dyslexia and ADHD. But it doesn’t try to include an exhaustive list. One benefit of this is that the law enables evaluation teams to keep pace with any name changes.

Now, getting back to the original question: How are “learning and attention issues” different from “learning disabilities”? “Learning and attention issues” makes room for all of the nuances described above. This field is constantly evolving. That’s one reason why Understood decided to use this term. It’s important to us to make room for many perspectives—including those of doctors, educators, lawyers and parents like you.

And last but not least, please keep in mind that we’re here to help you get a handle on the different ways learning and attention issues are described. We want to help prepare you for important conversations so you can get your child the help she needs to succeed.

About the Author

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood

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