Intellectual disabilities affect a child’s ability to learn and function at levels considered typical for their age. Learning disabilities affect a child’s ability to master specific skills, like reading, while overall intelligence levels remain unaffected.

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There are many misunderstandings when it comes to disorders that affect your ability to learn and function. For example, some people may think that intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities are the same things, but that is not the case.

Intellectual disabilities are lifelong conditions that affect someone’s ability to develop, learn, and function at expected levels. Children with intellectual disabilities may develop more slowly than other children and they may score low on a number of different intelligence tests. Examples of intellectual disabilities include Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Learning disabilities affect a child’s ability to learn specific skills, like reading, writing, or concentrating. While learning disabilities can affect many areas of a child’s life, these children typically develop normally and have average or above-average intelligence. Examples of learning disabilities include dyslexia and dysgraphia.

Let’s take a look and intellectual and learning disabilities, and what the differences are.

Intellectual disabilities (IDs) are conditions that cause significant impairments in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors like social skills. IDs typically originate at birth and are diagnosed before age 18.

Intellectual impairments can include significant limitations in general mental capacities like learning, reasoning, and problem-solving. Impairments in adaptive behaviors include difficulties with social, conceptual, and practical skills. This can include things like naivety and gullibility, trouble understanding time and money, and difficulty performing basic tasks like dressing or playing games.

IDs can range from mild to severe and they can look very different in different people. They can also be associated with co-existing or related disorders like neurodevelopmental disorders, neurological disorders, and mental health disorders.

Although an IQ test is not required for a diagnosis, people with IDs tend to score lower than average on this test of intelligence. An IQ score of 70 or below may indicate an intellectual disability.

Symptoms of IDs in children can include:

  • difficulty understanding and following social rules and norms
  • difficulties with problem-solving
  • delays in sitting up, crawling, or walking
  • delays or difficulties with speech and language
  • trouble using tools like pencils or utensils
  • trouble interacting with others

In order to diagnose an ID, a developmental pediatrician or other specialist needs to evaluate your child. There are other reasons for delays in development that may not be due to an ID.

Learning disabilities (LDs) are disorders that affect a child’s ability to learn, think, and process information. It’s estimated that about 8% to 10% of school-aged children have a learning disability.

Most learning disabilities are classified by trouble with specific skills, like reading, writing, and math. Other related learning differences, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can also affect a child’s ability to learn. Many children have more than one learning disorder.

While these disorders can affect toddlers, they often go unnoticed until the child is in school.

Symptoms of a learning disability can include:

  • trouble reading, spelling, or sounding out words
  • trouble writing clearly
  • difficulty with math calculations or word problems
  • trouble remembering things
  • trouble paying attention or focusing on schoolwork
  • trouble following directions
  • difficulty telling time
  • trouble staying organized at home or at school

Each learning disability can have different symptoms, and even if a person has a specific learning disability, they may not exhibit every sign of that disability.

The specific cause of intellectual and learning disabilities can vary depending on the specific disability a person has. Sometimes there is no identifiable cause.

IDs can be caused by a variety of things, including:

  • genetic mutations or alterations of some kind (as in Rett syndrome)
  • chromosome abnormalities (like Down syndrome, or trisomy 21)
  • exposure while in utero to certain substances, like fetal alcohol syndrome
  • infections during pregnancy, like cytomegalovirus
  • issues during childbirth, like the cord around the neck causing a lack of oxygen
  • traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • preterm birth

Learning disabilities have been associated with a variety of risk factors, including:

  • a family history of learning disabilities
  • exposure to alcohol or drugs while in the womb
  • poor nutrition
  • exposure to lead from water or paint

Intellectual disabilities cannot be cured, but there are therapies and services that can assist children and adults with school and everyday activities. The goal of these services is to help minimize symptoms and improve quality of life.

If your child is under the age of 3, you can talk with a pediatrician about early intervention services. Early intervention services may help children thrive later in life.

If your child is 3 or older, their school should offer special education services.

These programs help with academic modifications that encourage learning. They also help children develop social skills and basic life skills. Services may include behavioral therapy, physical or occupational therapy, support groups, and medication if necessary.

Though early intervention is done when children are younger, many people with ID need support throughout their lives. This may mean hiring an aide to assist the person, placing them in a day program for adults with IDs, or finding a residential program with supportive services.

The specific needs of each person and the severity of their ID will determine any longterm care needs.

The most common management for learning disabilities is special education, which is really better described as accessible education. Modifications and accommodations are set in place to help children succeed in the school environment. This may mean extra time on tests, a quiet learning environment, a note-taker, or something else.

Tutors and therapists may also be an option. If your child also has a condition like ADHD, medication may be beneficial.

IDs are often associated with syndromes where other disabilities are present as well. These can include:

Conditions commonly associated with IDs include autism spectrum disorders and cerebral palsy.

There are many different types of learning disabilities. These can include:

  • dyscalculia: this impacts a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts
  • dysgraphia: this affects someone’s handwriting ability and fine motor skills
  • dyslexia: this affects reading and language-based processing skills
  • nonverbal learning disabilities: this causes trouble interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language
  • oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit: these impact someone’s ability to understand what they read or to understand or use spoken language

Related disorders to LDs can include things like ADHD, dyspraxia (problems with language, coordination, and speech), and problems with executive functioning.

Intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities can overlap and co-occur, but they are not the same thing. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis for these disabilities because treatments are often based on a child’s specific needs.

With early and accurate diagnosis, a management plan can be set in place to help a child thrive.