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Aspects of certain learning disabilities can look a lot like aspects of autism, and vice versa. So what are the similarities and differences?

Autism, though a broad spectrum, is autism. Learning disabilities are learning disabilities, and there's an awful lot of different ones about. Some people confuse autism and learning disabilities, because one can look a lot like the other, a person can have both autism and a learning disability, because they can both result in thinking or behavior that puzzles "normal people", or because Googling specific symptoms can cause results for both to come up.

Like some other articles in this series about autism, we're tackling this subject because inquiring minds want answers. As always, we'll do our best to deliver them. 

Some obvious similarities between autism and learning disabilities

Autism and learning disabilities — an umbrella term that, like autism, covers a wide spectrum — are both neurological conditions. That is, they both involve different brain wiring. This means different ways of thinking, different ways of doing things, and in some cases different ways of behaving. Autism and learning disabilities are both frequently misunderstood by those who don't have them. Autism and learning disabilities can both impact a person's ability to function in the world, something the social model of disability would hold to be, in large part, due to the way the world tends to react to people with these (and any other) disabilities. Autism and learning disabilities also both have a strong genetic component

Another thing learning disabilities and autism have in common? Research has shown that they often co-exist in the same person. One paper that looked at 10 previous studies (all conducted since the year 2000) revealed that the prevalence of learning disabilities is somewhere between 15 and 84 percent. 

To look at the differences, we'd have to look at what autism and learning disabilities mean, and that's quite a task. We'll try to be succinct. 

What is autism?

Tough question! Do we look at the diagnostic criteria, or something else? If we look at something else, the most obvious candidate is to explore how autistic people themselves describe autism. There are numerous blogs written by autistic people on the web, many of which tackle this very question — but all in different, though often very rich and detailed, ways. 

Google's very own dictionary (a resource that can only ever scratch the very surface by definition, which is exactly why I wanted to see what it had to say) describes autism as "a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior". Autistic Hoya, a blogger whose "autism FAQ" I've linked below, doesn't start off much differently. Rather than characterizing autism in terms of "difficulties" and "restrictions", they refer to "significant differences in information processing, sensory processing, communication abilities or styles, social skills, and learning styles", while also calling autism a disability, maybe a disorder, but definitely not a disease. 

They say a few things that you might not find in a neurotypical summary of what autism is that are relevant, as well:

  • Autistic people may be non-verbal and rely on other means of communication (something that has become much easier with modern computers!). 
  • "Stimming", or self-stimulating behaviors, which can be rocking, spinning, fidgeting, pacing, or verbal stimming, among other options. 
  • Autistic people tend to take language literally and may have trouble understanding things like sarcasm, though this is not universal. 
  • Routines are very important to autistic people. 
Every autistic person is different. You may say, "just like everyone else", but one very interesting study actually found that individual autistic people's brains are very different from one another, having more connections in some places and less in others, while neurotypical brains tend to be fairly uniform. We'll say, then, that autism can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but it's ultimately a different wiring of the brain — and the brain is perhaps the most important part of who we are. 

Dys, that, and the other: A quick look into some learning disabilities

There are many learning disabilities, each with their own characteristics, levels of severity, and diagnostic criteria. To discuss them all in detail would be impossible in such a short article, but here's a brief overview:

  • Dyslexia is a learning disability that causes people who have it to have difficulty decoding the written word and to find it hard to write without spelling mistakes as well. 
  • Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects the ability to engage in mathematical activities, often specifically arithmetic. 
  • Dysgraphia is a learning disability that impacts handwriting as well as fine motor skills in general. People with autism also often have trouble with gross and fine motor skills, so here, one can see how questions about differences and similarities may arise. 
  • Dyspraxia, once called "clumsy child syndrome", affects coordination, gross and fine motor skills, executive functioning (such as the ability to plan things), and it also often features sensitivity to rough textures in clothing or loud noises. It is easy, here, to see why someone may mistake autism for dyspraxia or the other way around, but they are not the same thing. 
  • ADHD isn't actually considered a learning disability, but it may make it hard for a person to focus. ADHD may also cause non-typical ways of communicating, like talking a lot about subjects you're very interested in and not noticing that the other person may not be that into the conversation. Autistic people tend to favor routines, on the other hand, while those with ADHD are more impulsive. 
  • Auditory Processing Disorder impacts how sounds are processed, and can make it hard for people to understand what is said. Like autistic people, those with this disorder can find it tough to cope with background noise and have difficulties with puns and metaphors. Once again, though, APD is not autism. 

In conclusion

Outside of plain old curiosity, the main situation in which I can imagine people Googling the differences and similarities between autism and (specific) learning disabilities is if they're parents of a child who is clearly struggling with something. Looking at symptoms, you'd then think, for instance, "oh, dyspraxia actually sounds a lot like Lydia if I look at all the possible symptoms," but then have a similar "aha" moment again when reading about autism. For that matter, adults who are trying to find answers to how and why they've always been different may go down a similar rabbit hole. 

The good news, here, is that you do not have to self-diagnose your child or yourself — and you actually really can't, though you can form fairly accurate suspicions. Doing a lot of reading about autism or specific learning disabilities can teach you quite a bit, but if you want a definitive answer as to what could be causing the symptoms (or ways of thinking, or difficulties, of differences) you're seeing, pursuing a formal diagnosis is really your only shot. You may have been right when you suspected a particular label, or not, and it's entirely possible to have both autism and a learning disability or several, as well. 

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