Oftentimes, those who have been diagnosed with ADHD may struggle in school or work, making it difficult for them to follow instructions, focus on tasks and assignments, and pay attention to important details. But even so, that does not necessarily mean that ADHD is a learning disability. Here, we explore the reality of ADHD — what it is, how it may be treated, and what sets it apart from other conditions that may impair learning ability.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and is one of the most-common neurodevelopmental disorders in children. In fact, according to the most-recent available data, the CDC suggests that as many as 9.4% of children ages 4-17 may suffer from ADHD. In recent years, there has been an increase in diagnosable cases, but this may only indicate that we’ve become better at identifying symptoms, and that fewer cases are going undiagnosed into adulthood.
Most kids have trouble focusing from time to time, but eventually grow out of inattentive behavior on their own. This is generally not true with children diagnosed with ADHD, who tend to experience significant impairment and other symptoms lasting into adulthood in more than 50% of cases.
Symptoms of ADHD sometimes mirror typical childhood behavior, and may be difficult to correctly diagnose. The symptoms themselves can be categorized into two separate behavioral groups: Inattentiveness, and hyperactivity.
Possible symptoms of ADHD include the following:
As previously stated, these symptoms may persist into adulthood. That said, how these symptoms manifest in adults may be very different from how they are represented in children. This makes identifying adults with ADHD problematic, if they were not already diagnosed during childhood.
Is ADHD a Disability?
Is ADHD considered a disability? That can be a tough question to answer. For one thing, there is little consensus about what actually defines a disability. If the question is ‘Can ADHD make it difficult for children to do well in school?’ then the answer is a resounding yes. Problems concentrating and following directions may directly impact a child’s ability to learn. However, that does not mean that ADHD is a learning disability.
The fact is that ADHD is not classified as a learning disability, according to how the term is defined in the Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):
“[A learning disability is a] disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.”
ADHD does not directly affect an individual’s capabilities in learning specific skill sets, such as mathematics, reading, or writing. Instead, ADHD impacts global skills, such as paying attention and controlling impulses. As such, it is not technically classified as a learning disability.
But is ADHD a disability? It certainly can be. This is because, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) in 20%–30% of childhood ADHD cases, the child also suffers from at least one specific learning disability.
The most-common learning disabilities associated with ADHD are as follows:
Additionally, it is not unheard of for ADHD children to suffer from a combination of specific learning disabilities, creating even more hurdles to educational success.
Things become even more complicated when you consider ADHD disability in terms of receiving government benefits. According to both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, ADHD is considered a protected disability in the United States, but only if it is severe enough that it directly hinders an individual’s ability to work or participate in the public sector.
In order for ADHD to be considered a disability, a physician or doctor has to determine that the symptoms are severe enough to represent a major barrier to self-sufficiency. Where ADHD does not prevent a person from being able to function in society, then the individual is unlikely to receive benefits, and the disorder is not legally recognized as a disability.
But regardless of its legal status, ADHD demands serious consideration. Is ADHD a developmental disability? In many ways, yes. More technically, it is referred to as a ‘neurodevelopmental disorder,’ affecting development and certain types of functionality in the brain. As such, ADHD can seriously impact how effectively a person is able to learn and understand new concepts. From being less able to plan, organize, and coordinate thoughts and actions, to having extremely short attention spans, to engaging in hyperactivity or poor impulse control, there are many possible symptoms of ADHD that may create impediments to learning.
Most current research has concluded that a person’s likelihood of having ADHD is almost entirely dependent on genetic factors. There are few steps that may be taken to reduce the risk of ADHD in children, and relevant risk factors are not well understood. In other words, a person is very unlikely to simply ‘develop’ ADHD, although it may remain unidentified throughout childhood, and instead be diagnosed later in life.
Can ADHD Be Treated?
Although there are no known preventative measures individuals may take to decrease the likelihood of ADHD in themselves or their loved ones, there are ways to treat the disorder. As with any medical or psychological condition, the best approach to managing ADHD is to discuss the issue with a trusted medical professional. Working closely with a doctor or developmental specialist, patients can explore possible treatment options, and more accurately gauge their effectiveness.
In many cases, the best approach to treating ADHD is through behavior therapy, supplemented with prescription medication. Behavior therapy can help train ADHD sufferers to replace negative behaviors with positive ones, by teaching them strategies to improve impulse control, concentration, memory, organization, and other essential aspects of learning. Behavior therapy may also target the parents of ADHD-diagnosed children, so that they can learn how to best support their child. In many cases, behavior therapy may be the key to patients successfully managing their ADHD symptoms without relying on medication.
When medication does become necessary, doctors will often prescribe stimulants. Stimulants have been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms in 70% of all ADHD cases, and are possibly even more effective in treating childhood ADHD. In fact, due to its high success rate, stimulant therapy is perhaps the most-common treatment for ADD/ ADHD. And although there are a number of possible side effects associated with prescription stimulants, newer visions of ADHD medication may reduce further side effects while relieving symptoms for longer periods of time. Still, it’s vitally important to always listen to doctor recommendations when considering stimulant treatment, as these stimulants may carry with them the risk of addiction or other dangerous side effects.
For patients who have a low tolerance for stimulants or who are at high risk of experiencing negative side effects, nonstimulant medications may be an effective alternative. Nonstimulants can have a longer-lasting effect in treating ADHD, and don’t pose the same risk of addiction as many ADHD medications that rely on stimulants.
When treating ADHD, the key is flexibility. Work closely with trusted medical professionals who can test out different forms of therapy, as well as different types of medication and varying doses. After all, every individual is unique, and finding the right balance of treatments may take some trial and error.
Living (and Thriving) with ADHD
When it comes to ADHD, there’s a lot we don’t know, and a lot of gray areas in terms of definitions and categorization. Fortunately, there’s also a lot that we do understand, and as research and medical science continues to progress, we’re always uncovering more about this particular disorder, and learning how to better guide and support those who live with it.
Is ADHD a disability? It doesn’t have to be. By working together with medical professionals to diagnose and treat the disorder, ADHD sufferers can live happy, productive lives. If you believe that your child may have ADHD, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician; they can help you get a diagnosis and give you clear direction on possible next steps. And, if you’re an adult who thinks that you might have ADD/ ADHD, take the Trifecta ADHD quiz to learn more.