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Learning Disability vs Intellectual Disability - How Are They Different?

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

    Learning Disability vs Intellectual Disability - How Are They Different?

    What do parents need to know about learning disability vs. intellectual disability? How are they different? Find out here.

    Intellectual disability, defined.

    Intellectual disability means there are significant limitations when it comes to adaptive behavior and intellectual functioning.

    To further explain, adaptive behavior refers to skills we learn through experience and use every day. These skills are divided into three categories:

    • Conceptual skills, which we use to manage important affairs such as communication, finances, time, etc.
    • Social skills, which refers to our interpersonal capacities, how we handle social responsibilities, or how we solve social problems.
    • Practical skills, which we use in our activities of daily living. Examples include our skills to take care of ourselves and our capacities to do our job.

    On the other hand, intellectual functioning refers to our general mental capacity. Many of us also call intellectual functioning as intelligence.

    One way to measure mental capacity is through Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. Experts say that an IQ of 70 to 75 may indicate limited intellectual functioning.

    Learning disability, defined.

    Now, let’s discuss what a learning disability is. According to experts, someone has a learning disability when they experience weakness in one or more cognitive skills related to learning. For instance, they might have difficulty in learning math or reading and writing.

    There are different types of learning disabilities. Examples include:

    • Dyslexia, a condition where someone has difficulty relating speech sounds to words and letters. This leads to reading, writing, and spelling challenges.
    • Dyscalculia, or when someone has problems learning math.
    • Dysgraphia, a condition affecting a person’s capacity to write.

    Intellectual disability vs. Learning disability

    Now that we have a clear understanding of the two conditions, let’s point out their similarities and differences.

    Both intellectual disability and learning disability affect learning as a whole. Hence, they can make school more challenging for kids. Children with an intellectual disability or learning disability may also need special attention in school.

    However, learning disability and intellectual disability affects each person differently, and the special attention they require also varies.

    This is because where a child who experiences a learning disability only has specific cognitive challenges, someone with an intellectual disability deals with limited  general mental capacity and adaptive behavior.

    To better visualize their differences, let’s look into two conditions: Down syndrome and dyscalculia.

    Down syndrome, a condition where a person has an extra chromosome, is one of the most known causes of (congenital) intellectual disability. This genetic condition often affects intelligence, so it may be difficult for the child to advance in school at the same time their peers do.

    On the other hand, dyscalculia, a learning disability, doesn’t affect a child’s intelligence. He or she may experience math difficulties that make it hard to perform simple tasks involving counting and measuring. However, it doesn’t mean that they cannot do well in it at all – they just have a harder time learning. In fact, some kids even excel in math once they receive special attention in order to learn it.


    If you come across British references, the concepts about learning disability vs. intellectual disability might be confusing.

    This is because British sources refer to learning disability as “learning difficulty,” and they refer to intellectual disability as “learning disability.” But the definitions are generally the same: a learning disability affects intelligence, learning difficulty does not.

    intellectual disability vs learning disability

    Next steps

    Parents who want to know if their child has a learning disability or intellectual disability need to consult a doctor. But it’s important to note that some signs may only be evident as the child grows older. Intellectual disability generally appears before the age of 22.

    For instance, children who may have an intellectual disability may have early physical problems such as crawling, walking, or talking later than their peers. Over time, they may also exhibit challenges in problem-solving, logical thinking, and understanding social rules.

    Children who may have a learning disability likely show specific signs and symptoms that become more evident when they enter school.

    intellectual disability vs learning disability

    Doctors need to perform various tests to check for the child’s intelligence and adaptive functioning.

    If there’s anything you’re worried about regarding your child’s development or learning, consulting a doctor is the best thing to do. This is because spotting some signs doesn’t immediately mean that they have a learning or intellectual disability.

    Case in point: delay in speech or reading and writing problems may just mean they need more time and practice.

    And if they really have a learning disability or intellectual disability, remember that the sooner you identify the concern, the faster you can intervene, and the chance of better long-term outcomes increases.

    Learn more about Behavioral and Developmental Conditions here. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

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