Are Learning Disabilities Holding You Back?

It may not be ADHD that causes your struggle with reading, writing, or math. Learning disabilities aren't just for kids — they can be a lifelong issue.

Up to 50 percent of adults with ADHD also have a learning disability (LD).


Get to the Bottom of an LD

If you suspect you have a learning disability, follow these three steps:

1. Get assessed. Assessments are typically done by psychologists with special training in LD. Assessments can range in cost. A comprehensive, six-hour, psycho-vocational assessment costs a couple thousand dollars. It includes behavioral, social, and emotional screening and testing. The expert will evaluate the individual’s reasoning abilities, working memory, and processing speed.

2. Develop a plan. Your assessment results will lead to one of two plans of action: remediation or compensation. In children, remediation can help manage the underlying deficit, says Todd Cunningham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and consultant in Toronto, Ontario. For busy adults looking to improve their work performance, Cunningham uses assistive technology. Text-to-speech technology, like Voice Dream or Read&Write Gold, translates text on a computer screen into audible speech. Speech-to-text technology, like the Dragon Dictation app or Dragon NaturallySpeaking, type what you say. You can launch applications, open files, and control your mouse with your voice, all of which increases productivity. Fractional, decimal, statistical, and talking calculators can help with a math disability.

3. Work with an LD specialist to tailor assistive technology to your learning needs. People don’t always respond optimally to the voice used in text-to-speech programs or to the program itself, says Cunningham. In addition, cognitive processing speed and working memory should be taken into account to determine the best speed at which the words are read back. An expert can help find the right software, so that a person with LD gets the most out of the technology.


Shortly before my ADHD diagnosis, at age 47, I'd gone back to school for a degree in adult education. As I got to know my fellow students, I realized that, unlike myself, they were married, had kids, and were full-time professionals. While they seemed to stand up to the pressure, I struggled to keep up with assigned readings, and my self-employment suffered as I focused on schoolwork. It dawned on me that something was wrong.

I did manage to graduate. Soon after, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I wondered if that was the source of my academic challenges. I took medication and did mindfulness training, and I was able to manage time better, focus more, and stay better organized. But seven years later, I'm still a slow reader, and I am less productive than I'd like to be. Then I discovered that up to 50 percent of adults with ADHD also have a learning disability (LD).

If, like me, you're an adult diagnosed with ADHD who has optimized your ADHD treatment plan, but you are still struggling at work or in grad school with reading or math, it may be time to be evaluated for LD. In Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, Russell Barkley, Ph.D., points out that, like ADHD, LD hampers social relationships, workplace performance, and your self-esteem. Here's what I learned about LD and ADHD in my quest to manage my own challenges.

A learning disability is a neurological disorder. In simple terms, it results from a difference in the way a person's brain is “wired.” Adults and children with learning disabilities are as smart or smarter than their peers, but they have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and/or organizing information if left to figure things out by themselves or if taught in conventional ways.

Like ADHD, an LD can't be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong issue. With the right support and intervention, however, adults with learning disabilities can go on to have successful careers. Many adults first notice their learning disabilities in college. Your natural abilities may have allowed you to compensate for your learning disability in high school, but coping strategies may not work for you in college, with its large class sizes, heavy workload, and fast-paced lectures.

Dan Perdue, 34, noticed that his LD — the language-based disability called dyslexia, which hinders a person's understanding of written words — worsens in some situations. “If the environment isn't supportive, everything becomes more difficult to do. Reading is harder, spelling is harder, math is harder. The more pressure I feel to get it right, the harder it is to get it right,” he says. Perdue was diagnosed with ADHD at 30, but he's known about his dyslexia since second grade. He is a slow reader who transposes numbers and words.

Because of his challenges in public school, Perdue says he became a perfectionist; he didn't try if there was a chance of failure. “If I didn't try, I didn't fail. My LD lowered my self-esteem and my self-worth, because I assumed I'd never be able to get it right anyway.”

NEXT: LD: Not Just for Kids


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