Learning Disabilities Vs. Intellectual Disabilities

Intellectual disability vs learning disability: what is the difference? While these two disabilities have similarities, they aren’t the same. Learn more on HealthyPlace.

Considering the terms learning disabilities vs intellectual disabilities can be confusing at first. After all, isn’t learning an intellectual function? And can’t learning enhance intelligence? While the terms “learning” and “intelligence” can and do relate to each other, learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities are two very different concepts, affecting kids and their potential in unique ways. This look at learning disabilities vs intellectual disabilities will end some of the confusion.

Like learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities impact learning. They are both covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the special education law that ensures that children receive individualized support at school. These similarities are significant, but understanding these disabilities comes from grasping their differences.

Learning Disabilities vs Intellectual Disabilities: What Constitutes a Learning Disorder?

Learning disabilities are processing problems within the brain. There are three main categories of disability plus others, all of which can disrupt a child’s ability to learn in those areas. The three core learning disabilities affect the fundamental academic areas of reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), and mathematics (dyscalculia). Within each area, different kids can experience different effects and difficulties.

In addition to dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, different learning disabilities types include auditory, language, and visual processing disorders plus nonverbal learning disorder. The primary feature of a learning disability is that it is a processing problem of the brain. In addition to learning difficulties, kids with learning disabilities can experience such things as:

  • Motor skills deficits, both fine and gross
  • Problems with hand-eye coordination
  • Memory problems
  • Sensory issues
  • Troubles with attention
  • Slow processing speed
  • Difficulties with logic and reasoning

The struggles a child with a learning disability faces are varied because of the differences in each disability, but in general, they involve what has been called weaknesses in certain areas of the brain (Cunningham, n.d.).

Outside of their area of disability, children with learning disabilities generally do well in school. The concept, “smart kids with learning disabilities,” is often used to describe these children.

If these traits define learning disabilities, what describes intellectual disabilities?

Learning Disabilities vs Intellectual Disabilities: What are Intellectual Disabilities?

Intellectual disabilities used to be known as mental retardation. The connotation was so derogatory that an official change was made. The essence of the disability, its criteria and symptoms, hav'e remained the same.

Children with intellectual disabilities have problems in two main areas:

  • Intellectual Functioning
  • Adaptive Behaviors

Intellectual functioning involves someone’s learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and reasoning. It’s represented by Intelligence Quotient or IQ. The average IQ is 100, and the average range is 85-115. Someone with an intellectual disability has an IQ of 75 or below. Learning disabilities, on the other hand, don’t affect IQ or general intellectual functioning.

Adaptive behaviors are skills everyone needs to function in daily life. These are conceptual skills like language, literacy, money concept, self-direction, and more. Practical skills like personal care, self-direction, ability to use the phone, and occupational skills are part of adaptive behavior. The other set of adaptive behaviors involves social skills and functioning. Someone with an intellectual disability has poor adaptive behavior.

One more important area for comparing learning disabilities vs intellectual disabilities is education. Both kids with a learning disability and those with intellectual disability can attend school and learn. A child with a learning disability has difficulty in a specific area related to their disability. The reading disorder dyslexia doesn’t affect math, for example. Someone with an intellectual disability, though, has learning deficits across the board. Their learning takes longer than other children (including students with learning disabilities, as they are slower only in their area of disability).

When considering intellectual disabilities vs learning disabilities, there is one more important similarity between them: like all children, these kids have strengths and abilities that can be nurtured. They can go to school and function and grow in their own ways.

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article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2022, January 17). Learning Disabilities Vs. Intellectual Disabilities, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: January 17, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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