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Adult Autism and Learning Disabilities

Autism can have major effects on a child’s development and create obstacles to learning.

The terms autism and learning disability can not be used interchangeably. They are not the same. However, they show some major similarities.

Since autism can affect social interaction, verbal and language skills, motor control, and executive function, there are often barriers to learning. This often leads to a misdiagnosis, since some symptoms of autism and learning disabilities overlap.

Being a complex disorder, no two individuals are identical. Everyone experiences autism differently. That is why a person-centered approach is so critical. While one individual with autism may showcase speech delays, another will not.

Whether you or your loved one seek support, here is what you need to know about autism and learning disabilities.

Is Autism a Learning Disability?

The short answer here is no. Autism is NOT a learning disability — but it can affect learning.
The long answer is a bit more complex, as children with autism can also have a learning disability.

There are also often overlapping symptoms, which makes many children with autism eligible for special education services during their school-age years. This is because autism can affect a child’s language skills, both in terms of speaking and listening.

In fact, because of the similarities, the medical establishment considered intellectual disability and autism virtually inseparable. In the 1980s, up to 69% of people with autism also had a diagnosis of an intellectual disability. By 2014, this dual diagnosis declined to 30% based on developing research. However, the line between autism and intellectual disability remains blurred.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2014, approximately 600,000 children had a primary diagnosis of autism and 400,000 were diagnosed with intellectual disability. But the accuracy of these figures depends on the accuracy of the diagnoses — which has been a concern since autism was first described in the 1940s. For example, around 30% of school-aged children with autism are minimally verbal, and this can lead to false assumptions about their intelligence — especially since about half of minimally verbal children with autism showcase a higher than expected IQ because of the way they communicate.

The impact that autism has on verbal and language skills, as well as executive function, social interaction, and motor control, can directly affect a child’s developmental ability to learn. For example, individuals with autism may develop language later in life or use language differently than their peers. Some may not use language to communicate at all. Then there are potential issues with eye contact and social cues, which have a significant effect on socialization and learning.

Autism can also affect an individual’s time management, organization, working memory, self-control, and planning — all of which relate to executive function. Issues with executive function can create challenges not just with learning, but all aspects of life.

Recommended reading: Autism and Executive Function

The main symptoms of autism include:

  • Difficulty with social interactions
  • Engaging in ritualistic or repetitive behaviors
  • Obsessions with specific topics

What Is a Learning Disability?

“Learning disability” is an umbrella term used to describe several learning issues, most often concerning math, writing, reading, and problem-solving. Although autism and learning disabilities can occur together, they are distinct.

Learning disorders are those that alter the brain in a manner that affects cognition and learning. For example, dyslexia makes it challenging for an individual to read because of decoding and word recognition. This can lead to difficulties in writing as well.

Considering approximately 5% to 15% of Americans have dyslexia, it is fairly common.

Research over the past couple of decades shows that this condition is complex. Thanks to functional brain imaging, researchers are not mapping “reading pathways” in the brain involved in dyslexia.

Although individuals with dyslexia may not read as well as those their age, this disorder is not linked to intelligence. Other common learning disabilities include dyscalculia, which affects math skills, and dysgraphia, which affects writing. All three disorders can occur independently or alongside autism.

There are also nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD), which affect as many as 1 in 25 children. These individuals do not struggle with verbal expression but do struggle with nonverbal cues in areas such as spatial awareness, visual awareness, or executive function.

This disorder can lead to challenges surrounding social situations and nonverbal communication, which many individuals with autism can relate to. The overlap can be significant. However, an NVLD is not the same as autism. Just because an individual meets the criteria for NVLD does not mean they meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis.

Is Autism a Disability?

Instead of being categorized as a “learning” disability, autism is often referred to as a developmental disability. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognize autism as a disability, as it is listed as an impairment that protects individuals from employment discrimination.

Special education law also covers 13 types of disabilities under the Disabilities Education Act. While autism is included in this list, it is in another category compared to specific learning disabilities (SLD).

Many disagree with the term disability, focusing more on the strengths and abilities of those on the spectrum.

Many mainstream theories continue to present autism via deficit models, without considering the strengths and atypical abilities associated with those diagnosed with autism. Again, these misconceptions often inaccurately link back to intellectual or learning disabilities.

Remember, autism is not a single, uniform disorder. It is a spectrum disorder because of the different symptoms that can arise with varying degrees of severity. This means that autism will vary from one individual to the next. A recent study found that the genes associated with learning disabilities and autism are distinct. Individuals with autism showcase a range of intellectual abilities, with some being exceptionally intelligent.

Unlike some development conditions, individuals with autism rarely look different from anyone else. Instead, this condition manifests in cognitive and behavioral processes, including learning.

The developmental abnormalities associated with autism begin in utero and continue throughout childhood. Without intervention, symptoms of autism can continue to present themselves throughout adulthood. However, it is never too late to intervene, focusing on life skill development.

How Do Symptoms of Autism and Learning Disabilities Overlap?

As discussed, autism and learning disability are not the same thing and often occur independently of one another. However, some individuals with autism also suffer from a learning disability.

When comparing autism and learning disabilities, there are similarities in communication, learning, attention, and social challenges.
In some cases, similarities exist between those with autism and disorders such as dyslexia. For example, individuals with dyslexia can experience auditory and visual difficulties, similar to the hyper or hypo sensitivity seen in those with autism. Dyslexic individuals can also showcase unique strengths in focused areas, displaying strong creative, logic, or design skills. Again, this can mimic focuses seen among individuals with autism.

The following symptoms of autism and learning disabilities overlap:

  • Neither are “curable”
  • Both are lifelong conditions
  • Both can have a significant impact on one’s life
  • Early intervention and ongoing support is important for both
  • Sensory processing issues and issues with social skills are common in autism and all learning disabilities

How the Adult Autism Learning Center Can Help

The Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning is the first of its kind.

Since there is a gap in the resources and services provided to adults with autism, our adult learning center developed specialized programs to offer continued support. Through ABA programming and hands-on learning, we remain committed to lifelong learning. Taking an individualized approach, our programs help adults with autism develop the skills they need to live a more independent life.

We do not view autism as a disability. Instead, we help each client become the best possible version of themselves, focusing on their unique skills and goals.

We understand how autism affects learning, which is why we invest in a person-centered approach. We address each individual’s barriers, encouraging ongoing learning. The goal is to help adults with autism work, learn, and play in their communities.

Our day programs cover a wide range of areas, helping our clients develop the skills they need to thrive. From social and leisure skills to academics and fitness education, we know the difference consistent, structured support can have — regardless of one’s age.

Ready to discuss the next steps? Please contact the Adult Autism Center to take advantage of ongoing education and support today!

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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