Is Autism a Learning Disability?

Blog Is Autism a Learning Disability
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that impacts social interaction, communication, and behavior. However, the question often arises: Is autism a learning disability? 

We’ll use my decades of experience in clinical psychology to explore the relationship between autism and learning disabilities. Let’s examine its various aspects and address common misconceptions.

Difference Between Autism and Learning Disabilities

Autism and learning disabilities are distinct concepts, with each having a unique set of characteristics and challenges. While they may coexist in some cases, it is crucial to understand the differences to provide accurate support and interventions for individuals within the autism spectrum.

Autistic individuals may have varying strengths and weaknesses in different areas of development. Some may excel in logical or mathematical tasks and showcase remarkable attention to detail. However, others may struggle with social nuances and non-verbal communication.

Learning disabilities, on the other hand, are specific impairments in academic or functional skills that significantly impact a child’s ability to learn and perform specific tasks. These disabilities can affect areas such as reading, writing, math, or even organizational skills. It's crucial to recognize that learning disabilities are not exclusive to individuals with autism. They can occur independently.

Coexistence of Autism and Learning Disabilities

While autism itself is not a severe learning disability, it is not uncommon for individuals with ASD to also have coexisting learning disabilities (Dunn et al., 2018). For example, a child with autism might experience difficulties in language processing or struggle with tasks that require fine motor skills. In such cases, addressing the learning disabilities alongside autism becomes essential for comprehensive support.

Learning Disability vs Autism  

Autism and learning disabilities are distinct but sometimes co-occurring conditions, each with its own set of characteristics. Here’s a list of the key differences between autism and learning disabilities.

1. Nature of Conditions

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and the presence of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests.

Learning Disabilities: Learning disabilities refer to specific difficulties in acquiring and using academic skills, such as reading, writing, or math, despite having average to above-average intelligence.

2. Social and Communication Challenges

Autism: Social and communication difficulties are core features of autism. Individuals with autism may struggle with understanding and interpreting social cues, have challenges in forming and maintaining relationships, and may exhibit atypical communication styles.

Learning Disabilities: While learning disabilities primarily affect academic skills, they do not necessarily involve pervasive challenges in social interactions or communication.

3. Repetitive Behaviors and Interests

Autism: Repetitive behaviors, routines, and intense interests in specific topics are common in individuals with autism.

Learning Disabilities: Learning disabilities typically do not involve repetitive behaviors or restricted interests in the same way that autism does.

4. Academic Challenges

Autism: While learning with autism has a lot of challenges, the difficulties are not limited to specific academic areas. Autism affects a broader range of cognitive and social functioning.

Learning Disabilities: Learning disabilities specifically impact academic skills. For example, dyslexia affects reading, dysgraphia affects writing, and dyscalculia affects math.

5. Intellectual Functioning

Autism: Autism can occur across a wide range of intellectual functioning, from intellectual disability to above-average intelligence.

Learning Disabilities: Individuals with learning disabilities typically have average to above-average intelligence. The learning difficulties are not attributed to overall cognitive impairment.

6. Sensory Sensitivities

Autism: Sensory sensitivities, such as heightened or diminished responses to sensory stimuli, are common in autism.

Learning Disabilities: Learning disabilities do not necessarily involve sensory sensitivities.

Autism vs. Learning Disabilities

Understanding the Coexistence: Learning Disabilities in Autism

ASD is renowned for its heterogeneity with its wide range of abilities and challenges. One aspect that often intersects with ASD is the coexistence of learning disabilities, which is what others refer to as an autism learning disability

However, ASD and learning disabilities are not as simple as it sounds. Let’s clear that up and add more layers of complexity to the educational landscape for individuals within the autism spectrum.

Diverse Learning Profiles within ASD

Within the broad spectrum of autism, individuals demonstrate diverse learning profiles. It's crucial to recognize that strengths and challenges can vary significantly among individuals with autism. 

While some may excel in areas such as mathematics, science, or artistic endeavors, others may encounter difficulties in more traditional academic domains like reading, writing, or mathematical reasoning.

This variability highlights the importance of adopting a personalized and holistic approach to education and supporting autistics to acknowledge and nurture their unique talents while addressing areas of difficulty to promote overall development and well-being.

Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) in ASD

Identifying Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) within the realm of Autism Spectrum Disorder involves recognizing challenges that impede academic achievement in specific areas. It's important to note that while autism itself is characterized by a broad range of cognitive and social differences, some individuals with ASD may also experience co-occurring learning disabilities. 

Common autistic learning difficulties may encompass conditions such as dyslexia (impairments in reading), dysgraphia (challenges in writing), dyscalculia (difficulties in mathematical reasoning), and other specific cognitive or processing issues. 

Addressing these specific learning challenges within the context of ASD requires a comprehensive and individualized approach to education and intervention. Tailoring strategies to the unique needs and strengths of each person with ASD and co-occurring learning disabilities is essential.

The Complexity of Comorbidities

The coexistence of learning disabilities with Autism Spectrum Disorder highlights the complex nature of neurodevelopmental conditions. While autism itself is not classified as a learning disability, the prevalence of comorbidities highlights the multifaceted challenges individuals with ASD may encounter (Ibrahim, 2019). 

It is not uncommon for those with ASD to experience difficulties in various academic domains, further emphasizing the need for detailed and individualized approaches to education and intervention. 

Recognizing and addressing these comorbidities are crucial steps in developing effective educational strategies that consider the unique strengths and challenges of each individual to foster an environment that supports comprehensive learning and development within the context of autism and any associated learning difficulties.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Challenges

In addition to academic struggles, individuals with ASD often confront challenges in social and emotional learning. Navigating the complexities of social interactions, developing and maintaining friendships, interpreting non-verbal cues, and effectively managing emotions can pose significant hurdles. 

The social and emotional aspects of learning are integral components of a well-rounded education, and for individuals with ASD, these areas require particular attention and support. Comprehensive strategies that encompass both academic and socio-emotional domains are essential for fostering a holistic approach to education, aiming to empower individuals with ASD to thrive not only academically but also in their social and emotional well-being

Tailoring Support for Autism and Learning Disability

Understanding the unique strengths and challenges of each individual is key to providing effective support. Educational strategies and interventions should be personalized, considering both the characteristics of autism and any associated learning disabilities. This approach acknowledges the diverse needs within the autistic community and ensures that interventions are targeted and impactful.

Early identification and intervention play a crucial role in addressing both autism and learning disabilities. Recognizing specific learning challenges allows educators, caregivers, and professionals to implement strategies supporting the child’s development.

1. Tailor Educational Approaches

4 Ways to Help Neurodivergent Kids in the Classroom list out

Recognizing the learning profile of each individual with ASD is pivotal for designing personalized educational approaches. Some may benefit from visual aids, structured routines, or alternative communication methods, while others might require specific interventions targeting their unique learning challenges.

2. Advocate for Inclusive Education

Advocacy for inclusive education is vital to ensuring that individuals with ASD and coexisting learning disabilities receive the necessary accommodations and support. This includes promoting awareness among educators, fostering understanding among peers, and implementing inclusive teaching practices that cater to diverse learning needs.

3. Address Language and Communication Deficits

For many individuals within the autism spectrum, language and communication difficulties are inherent. These challenges may extend to written expression and comprehension. Specialized interventions focused on language development and comprehension can significantly support individuals with ASD who experience these difficulties.

4. Create Collaborative Approaches for Success

Collaboration between educators, special education professionals, and parents is crucial for fostering success in individuals with ASD and learning disabilities. By sharing insights, implementing evidence-based strategies, and consistently assessing progress, a collaborative approach can provide the multifaceted support needed for comprehensive development.

Whether your child has autism or learning disability, they may experience challenges in specific areas of learning. It's crucial to understand and address the unique needs of each person with autism and provide tailored support and interventions to foster their learning and development. By fostering awareness, we can create a more inclusive environment that recognizes and celebrates the diverse strengths within the autism spectrum.

Is mild autism a disability?

The term “mild autism” is not clinically recognized, and the severity of symptoms varies widely in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). A disability depends on its impact on daily functioning. It's crucial to approach discussions about autism with sensitivity, focusing on individual needs and strengths rather than categorizing based on perceived severity.

Is high functioning autism and dyslexia the same?

Dyslexia and autism are distinct neurodevelopmental conditions. HFA is characterized by challenges in social interactions and communication, often accompanied by repetitive behaviors, while dyslexia is a specific learning disability primarily affecting reading skills. Despite their differences, individuals can experience both conditions concurrently, leading to a unique combination of strengths and challenges in both social and academic domains.

Is dyslexia autism?

Dyslexia and autism are distinct conditions, and having dyslexia does not mean a person has autism. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that primarily affects reading, spelling, and writing skills.

How do you compare autism vs developmental delay? 

Developmental delay is a general term indicating a delay in reaching developmental milestones without specifying the cause. Autism has well-defined diagnostic criteria, while developmental delay prompts further assessment to identify the specific areas of delay across various developmental domains.

Is Asperger's a learning disability?

Asperger's Syndrome, previously considered a distinct subtype of ASD, is characterized by challenges in social interaction and restricted interests but typically includes average to above-average intelligence and language skills. While Asperger's itself is not classified as a learning disability, individuals with Asperger's may experience specific learning challenges, such as difficulties in certain academic areas or executive function skills.

What is autism disability? 

While not traditionally classified as a disability, individuals with ASD may face difficulties in daily functioning, leading to the recognition of autism as a disability in legal and educational contexts. 

Is Nonverbal Learning Disability on the autism spectrum?

Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD) is a distinct neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by challenges in nonverbal areas, such as visual-spatial processing and social skills, with preserved verbal abilities. It is not considered part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

What causes non verbal autism?

The causes of ASD, including variations in verbal communication abilities, are complex and involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and neurological factors. Early intervention and personalized support, including speech therapy, are essential for addressing communication challenges in individuals with ASD.

Is autism a disorder or a disability?

In legal and educational contexts, autism is recognized as a disability, and individuals with ASD may be eligible for accommodations and support services. 

Can dyspraxia be mistaken for autism?

Dyspraxia and ASD are distinct neurodevelopmental conditions, but they can share overlapping features, such as motor coordination challenges. Dyspraxia primarily involves difficulties with motor planning and execution, while autism encompasses broader challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. 

What is the difference between autism and autistic spectrum disorder?

“Autism” historically referred to a specific developmental disorder, while “autism spectrum disorder” is the current term reflecting the understanding that autism exists on a spectrum with varying degrees of severity. The shift to “ASD” acknowledges the diverse presentations of symptoms, strengths, and challenges among individuals with autism. The use of “spectrum” highlights the variability in the condition, emphasizing the range of experiences within the autism diagnosis

Why is autism a disability?

ASD is recognized as a disability due to the challenges it poses. This classification enables individuals with autism to access support services, accommodations, and legal protections to address their specific challenges and enhance their inclusion in various aspects of life. 

What kind of disability is autism?

ASD is considered a neurodevelopmental disability. It is characterized by atypical development in various areas, including social interaction, communication, and behavior. The term “spectrum” reflects the wide range of abilities and challenges individuals with autism may experience, emphasizing the diverse nature of this neurodevelopmental disability.

How does autism impact learning?

ASD can impact learning through challenges in social interaction, communication difficulties, and sensory sensitivities. Executive function challenges, repetitive behaviors, and unique learning styles may further influence the learning experience for individuals with autism. 

Is ASD an intellectual disability?

ASD is not inherently associated with intellectual disability, as individuals with ASD can have a broad range of cognitive functioning. While some individuals with ASD have average or above-average intelligence, others may experience intellectual disabilities. 

Can someone be dyslexic and autistic?

Yes, it is possible for someone to be both dyslexic and autistic. Dyslexia and autism overlap frequently, and individuals with ASD may experience a range of specific learning difficulties, including dyslexia.

Is autism considered special needs?

Yes, autism is often considered a special need or falls under the category of special education. Special needs education is designed to address the unique requirements of individuals with various disabilities or conditions, including ASD.

Is autism a handicap?

The term “handicap” is not commonly used for ASD due to its potential to stigmatize and its lack of precision in describing the specific challenges and strengths associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Is dyslexia part of autism?

Dyslexia is not considered a part of autism. However, it is important to note that individuals with autism spectrum disorder can also experience the shared symptoms of ASD and dyslexia. In such cases, individuals may face challenges associated with both conditions.

Is mental retardation the same as autism?

Mental retardation is an outdated term that has been replaced by “intellectual disability,” a condition characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors. ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition with distinct features, including challenges in social interaction and communication. 

What is another word for learning difficulties?

Another word for learning difficulties is “learning challenges.” A variety of terms may also be used alternately, such as learning disabilities, differences, and impediments. “Educational challenges” and “cognitive difficulties” are also synonyms commonly employed in this context.

Are autistic people slow?

It's important to avoid using terms like “slow” to describe individuals with autism. ASD does not imply a uniform cognitive pace, and individuals with autism can have a wide range of intellectual abilities. Some may have average or above-average intelligence, while others may have intellectual disabilities. 

How to differentiate autism and speech delay?

Speech delay specifically pertains to a lag in speech and language development, often without broader challenges in social interaction or behavior. Autism, on the other hand, encompasses difficulties in social interactions, communication, and the presence of repetitive behaviors, with speech delay being one of the potential indicators. 

What is a learning difference?

A learning difference refers to variations in the way individuals acquire, process, and demonstrate knowledge or skills compared to the typical methods or patterns. It is a term often used to highlight diverse learning styles and abilities rather than focusing on deficits. Learning differences can manifest in areas such as reading, writing, math, or other cognitive skills.


Dunn, K., Rydzewska, E., MacIntyre, C., Rintoul, J., & Cooper, S.-A. . (2018). The prevalence and general health status of people with intellectual disabilities and autism co-occurring together: a total population study. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 63(4), 277–285.

Ibrahim, I. (2019). Specific Learning Disorder in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Current Issues and Future Implications. Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 4.

Dr. Roseann is a mental health expert in Autism who frequently is in the media:

  • Very Well Mind New Research Highlights Key Differences Among Autistic Boys and Girls
  • Very Well Mind What Is Asperger Syndrome?
  • Parents Are Your Kid's Meltdowns a Sign of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Licensed Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of media outlets including The Mel Robbins Show, CBS, NBC, PIX11 NYC, Today, FORBES, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, Women’s Day, Healthline, CNET, Parade Magazine and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.

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She coined the terms, “Re-entry panic syndrome” and “eco-anxiety” and is a frequent contributor to media on mental health. 

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge has three decades of experience in working with children, teens and their families with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, concussion, dyslexia and learning disability, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and mood disorder, Lyme Disease, and PANS/PANDAS using science-backed natural mental health solutions such as supplements, magnesium, nutrition, QEEG Brain maps, neurofeedback, PEMF, psychotherapy and other non-medication approaches. 

She is the author of three bestselling books, It’s Gonna Be OK!: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Health, The Teletherapy Toolkit, and Brain Under Attack. Dr. Roseann is known for offering a message of hope through science-endorsed methods that promote a calm brain. 

Her trademarked BrainBehaviorResetⓇ Program and It’s Gonna be OK!Ⓡ Podcast has been a cornerstone for thousands of parents facing mental health, behavioral or neurodevelopmental challenges.

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health, Neurotastic™Brain Formulas and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional (CIMHP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF).

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