What is the Difference Between a Learning Disability and Learning Disorder

What is the Difference Between a Learning Disability and Learning Disorder?

Learning Disabilities

Care Learning

4 mins READ

In health and social care, understanding the distinction between a learning disability and a learning disorder is crucial for providing appropriate support and interventions.

While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably in colloquial language, they refer to different conditions and have unique implications for affected individuals.

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a condition that affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate. It is characterised by a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, learn new skills, and cope independently.

This condition is typically recognised early in life and persists into adulthood. Learning disabilities can vary in severity from mild to profound and encompass a wide variety of specific conditions.

Characteristics of Learning Disabilities:

  • Lifelong Condition: Learning disabilities are identified in childhood and persist throughout an individual’s life.
  • Developmentally Delayed: Individuals exhibit delayed development in various areas such as cognition, motor skills, and social abilities.
  • Impact on Everyday Life: The condition affects everyday activities, educational achievements, and employment opportunities.
  • Support Needs: Those with learning disabilities often require varying levels of support depending upon the severity of their condition. Support may come from family, carers, educators, and health and social care professionals.
  • Examples: Common examples include Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when characterised by significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning.

What is a Learning Disorder?

A learning disorder, on the other hand, refers to specific difficulties in learning certain academic skills, despite having average or above-average intelligence.

These disorders are often diagnosed when a child’s attainment levels in reading, writing, or mathematics are substantially below expectations for their age, schooling, and level of intelligence.

Characteristics of Learning Disorders:

  • Specific Skill Deficits: A learning disorder affects specific areas of learning and does not broadly impact intellectual or adaptive functioning.
  • Types of Learning Disorders: The most common types include dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), and dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers and mathematics).
  • Academic Performance: Children with learning disorders often exhibit difficulties in a specialised area which impacts their performance in corresponding academic tasks.
  • Intelligence: Individuals with learning disorders typically possess average to above-average intelligence and can often excel in other academic or practical areas.
  • Support and Intervention: Effective teaching strategies, accommodations, and specialised interventions can help individuals with learning disorders reach their potential.

Key Differences

  • Scope of the Condition: Learning disabilities affect broad areas of functioning and development, while learning disorders are specific to particular academic skills.
  • Cognitive Functioning: Learning disabilities typically involve significantly below-average intellectual functioning, whereas learning disorders do not.
  • Support Needs: Individuals with learning disabilities may require lifelong support for various aspects of daily living, while those with learning disorders may need targeted educational interventions.

Here are some illustrative examples of both learning disabilities and learning disorders to help clarify the differences further:

Examples of Learning Disabilities:

Down’s Syndrome:

    • Description: A genetic condition where an individual has an extra chromosome 21, resulting in characteristic facial features, developmental delays, and learning disabilities.
    • Impact: People with Down’s syndrome often experience various levels of intellectual disability and developmental delay, requiring lifelong support and specialised educational programs.

    Cerebral Palsy:

      • Description: A group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture due to abnormal brain development or damage occurring while the brain is developing (before or during birth, or early infancy).
      • Impact: While cerebral palsy is primarily a motor disability, some individuals also experience learning disabilities. These individuals may need comprehensive, interdisciplinary support involving physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and special educators.

      Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (with significantly impaired intellectual functioning):

        • Description: A developmental disorder affecting communication, behaviour, and social interaction. Some individuals with ASD also have intellectual disabilities, impacting their learning and adaptability.
        • Impact: Children and adults with autism may need customised educational approaches, speech therapy, and behavioural interventions. Those with significant intellectual impairment also require additional support to manage daily tasks and life skills.

        Examples of Learning Disorders:


          • Description: A specific learning disorder that makes reading difficult due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding).
          • Impact: Students with dyslexia may struggle with reading fluently and tend to have issues with spelling and writing. They often benefit from specialised reading programmes and classroom accommodations like extra time on tests.


            • Description: A specific learning disorder that involves writing difficulties, including issues with handwriting, spelling, and composition.
            • Impact: Dysgraphia can make it hard for students to write clearly, organise their thoughts on paper, and produce written work at an age-appropriate level. Interventions typically include occupational therapy and the use of assistive technology.


              • Description: A specific learning disorder characterised by difficulties in understanding number-related concepts, performing accurate and fluent calculations, and grasping mathematical reasoning.
              • Impact: Students with dyscalculia may find it hard to perform basic arithmetic operations and grasp mathematical concepts. They may need tailored instruction and visual aids to help them learn.

              Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD):

                • Description: A disorder marked by a significant discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal skills, where individuals have strong verbal abilities but struggle with motor skills, visual-spatial tasks, and social interactions.
                • Impact: Children with NVLD may excel in reading and verbal communication but struggle with handwriting, understanding spatial relationships, and interpreting non-verbal social cues. Support typically involves skill-specific interventions and social skills training.

                By identifying whether an individual has a learning disability or a learning disorder, professionals can plan and implement the most effective strategies to support their unique needs, facilitating better outcomes in education, personal development, and daily living.


                Understanding these distinctions is vital for parents, educators, and health and social care professionals to develop effective support plans.

                Tailored approaches can help individuals with learning disabilities or learning disorders achieve the best possible outcomes in both their educational pursuits and daily lives.

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