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difference between a learning difficulty and a learning disability

The difference between a learning difficulty and a learning disability

May 16, 2024
The difference between a learning difficulty and a learning disability can be a fine line.

An estimated 5 to 15% of school-age children struggle with a learning disability. Therefore, the answer to this question can be very important, as it can affect whether or not a person receives funding, as well as a person’s own feelings around their challenges.

Unfortunately, there’s another layer to this: while a learning challenge may be recognised internationally or even locally as a disability or disorder, it may not receive funding under the NDIS.

A note on the word disorder versus disability in this article: disorder is a medical term. Disability is used in educational and legal contexts. However, they are really interchangeable for the purposes of this post.

Definition of Learning Disability

To a degree, what is classed as a learning disability is a matter of official definition. However, a learning difficulty not being ‘officially’ recognised as a disability does not diminish the struggles of those with the learning difficulty.

auditory processing gestures learning disability

In general, a learning disability is:

  • a learning challenge resulting from a specific neurological condition that affects how the brain functions
  • persistent, not situational or temporary
  • not a result of below-average intelligence

From the perspective of receiving funding or support, a learning disability would possibly attract funding, extra help and recognition, due to their greater severity.

What are some examples of learning disabilities?

Examples of learning disabilities:

These are all listed by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as some common learning disabilities. The NICHD classifies them as learning disabilities, rather than intellectual, neurodevelopmental or physical disabilities.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) publishes the DSM-5 handbook, used as a guide by health professionals in Australia to diagnose mental and learning disorders. The DSM-5 does not list specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, as separate disorders. Instead, it considers them under one category: Specific Learning Disorder (SLD). However, the DSM-5 does acknowledge three different areas which fall under the category of SLD: impairment in reading (dyslexia), impairment in written expression (dysgraphia), impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia). 

Is ADHD a learning disability?

According to the APA, ADHD is also classed as a disability, but not specifically as a learning disability, as ADHD has a broader impact than just on learning – though of course attentional difficulties make learning more challenging. 

Likewise, Autism is classed as a neurodevelopmental disorder, rather than a learning disorder. Autism often also affects learning, as social interactions and focus are often a challenge for Autistic people, affecting their schooling.

However, as we mentioned earlier, from the perspective of receiving government funding and support, the answer to “what is learning disability?”  is different from how a health professional might answer.

NDIS and Learning Disabilities

In Australia,the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 defines a disability as including “a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction.”  

It would seem that this should include the disabilities under DSM-V and listed by NICHD. However, the NDIS lists Autism and intellectual disability as disabilities that can receive funding, but does not list dyslexia, APD, dyscalculia, ADHD or any other neurodevelopmental or learning disability.

This means someone with any of these neurodevelopmental or learning disabilities normally can’t receive funding from NDIS, unless they already qualify for NDIS for another recognised disability.

What is a learning difficulty?

In general, a learning difficulty is:

  • a neurodevelopmental difference that is below the threshold at which it is recognised as a disorder, but severe enough to make learning challenging
  • or a difference in learning style, which is not being accommodated for in the classroom – such as those that are poor auditory learners
  • possibly temporary, with the right accommodation and training
Symptoms of Dyslexia learning disability

What are some examples of learning difficulties?

Anything that makes it challenging to learn is a learning difficulty. This includes, but is not limited to:

The difference between a learning disability and a learning difficulty

Learning disabilities and learning difficulties both make learning a challenge, but they differ in their severity, persistence, and origin.

  • A learning disability stems from a specific neurological condition, and may severely impact learning throughout life. Most with a physical or intellectual disability qualify for funding from the NDIS, but most with a learning disability do not.
  • A learning difficulty may be due to a neurological condition or another cause, and may be temporary. They are usually less severe in impact than a disability. Learning difficulties do not attract NDIS funding.
classroom maths online games Auditory Processing Disorder treatment learning disability

Find out your learning strengths and weaknesses

Would you like to find out what your learning strengths and weaknesses are? Take Sonic Learning’s online Learning Difficulties Screening Assessment.

  • Free
  • For ages 4 – 70
  • Takes 5 minutes
  • Learning areas scores and program recommendation provided

Your report will include recommended programs that Sonic Learning provides. These programs help you improve cognitive skills through online auditory processing, memory, and attention programs. With the right treatment, individuals with learning difficulties or disabilities can overcome their challenges and thrive. Contact Sonic Learning for a free phone consultation to discuss how our online programs can help.

Fast forword

Learn about the Fast ForWord online program

Learn how teachers can help students with Fast ForWord auditory processing training.

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Download Executive Function info pack

Everything you need to know, including the basics of executive function and tips for teaching students who struggle with executive function.

Book a free phone consult

This free telephone consultation can help to answer any questions you have about our services. At Sonic Learning we are all experienced teachers and health professionals so parents tend to find it very beneficial to be able to discuss their concerns and receive guidance from our team.

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