• Autism, officially known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often confused with learning disorders, but these conditions are different.
  • Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means it affects how the brain functions and processes information.
  • In comparison, learning disorders typically affect how someone is able to understand new processes, especially in regards to reading, writing, mathematics, and other academic subjects.
  • However, autism shares some features in common with nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) in particular, especially since individuals affected by these conditions often fail to pick up on social cues, body language, and hand gestures.
  • Even though severe cases of autism and learning disorders can cause impairment in childhood and beyond, these conditions are disorders—and shouldn’t be generalized as disabilities, except on an individualized basis.

Autism, officially known autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a somewhat common neurodevelopmental disorder but isn’t well-understood by the general public. And despite increasing understanding and awareness in regards to autism, misconceptions still persist. 

For example, it’s common for many people to confuse autism with learning disabilities but under closer scrutiny, significant differences become quickly visible. So in reality, is autism a learning disorder, or not? 

Is Autism a Learning Disorder?

In reality, autism is actually not a learning disorder—it’s categorized as a neurodevelopmental disorder as mentioned above. However, ASD does in fact affect one’s learning process; sometimes in ways that are similar to learning disabilities. It’s a non-curable condition that lasts a lifetime.

Kids, teens, and young adults who have autism are often eligible for special education services, as are many youth with learning disabilities. Many people might mistake autism for for a learning disorder because it can affect someone’s: 

  • Verbal and language skills
  • Social skills
  • Executive functioning and higher reasoning
  • Emotional development

Autism affects sensory input and processing but it has no impact or effect on one’s intellectual ability. Many children with autism and others with ASD are able to function at high levels with correct treatment and supportive care, even if their social skills and nonverbal communication skills aren’t perfectly developed. 

What’s the Difference Between a Learning Disorder and Autism?

Autism affects how the brain processes stimulus from the outside world in ways that are neurodivergent in comparison to neurotypical individuals. In comparison, learning disorders are neurological conditions that directly interfere with how someone learns. 

It’s also worth noting that although autism and learning disabilities affect social skills and nonverbal communication, they have no effect on someone’s intelligence or motivation, nor are they caused by poor parenting skills. This is important to remember, as parents and families may blame themselves for a child’s learning difficulties. 

A common learning disorder known as nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) can make it difficult for children, teens, and adults to: 

  • Distinguish nonverbal cues, such as someone’s tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language 
  • Struggle with hand-eye coordination
  • Understand personal boundaries

These symptoms are similar to autism’s classic signs and may be confused with autism spectrum disorder without the proper diagnosis from a trained mental health professional.

Want to talk to a therapist?

Start working with one of our top-rated providers. We have availability now and accept most major insurances.

What Are the 5 Most Common Learning Disorders?

Learning disabilities impact someone’s ability to understand concepts, write, read, retain information, and control their motor skills. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia are a few of the most common learning disabilities. 

These learning disabilities share some common characteristics with ASD, including that:

  • They can significantly impact a person’s life
  • They can be better treated with early detection and intervention
  • They affect sensory processing issues, emotional dysregulation and social skills 

While each of these learning disabilities may share some common features with autism, they’re distinct in their own right. For example: 

  • Dyslexia: May cause difficulty reading and understanding speech sounds
  • Dysgraphia: Makes writing difficult and may cause issues with learning to spell 
  • Dyscalculia: Can cause difficulty learning math and deciphering numbers and equations
  • Dyspraxia: Typically causes issues with coordination, athletics, writing, and adolescent development

Is a Learning Disorder Considered a Disability?

This is typically up to the individual. Do they want to identify as having a disability? Some would say yes, and others no—the choice is their own. It is typical for schoolchildren and adults to receive accommodations at work and at school for these learning “disabilities,” whether or not they are categorized as a disability is a case-by-case preference. 

It’s best not to assume someone is disabled because they have a learning disorder, or are autistic. And despite the similarities between ASD and learning disabilities, these conditions aren’t identical, and they don’t always cause significant cognitive differences or impairments in childhood and beyond. 

For those looking to understand autism and learning disorder symptoms, it’s best to learn from the individual carrying the diagnosis, and talk with them candidly about how their condition affects their daily life.