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What is the difference between a learning disability and autism?

Learning disabilities and autism can be easily confused. Some children are diagnosed with just one of the conditions. Some children have both a learning disability and autism.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a lifelong condition that affects a person’s ability to learn new information, develop new skills, and live an independent life.

Children with a learning disability:

  • Struggle with school learning and independence skills such as self-care and managing money
  • Learn far more slowly than their peers
  • Have the lowest scores on assessments of both thinking skills and daily living skills
  • May be less likely to have GCSEs or equivalent qualifications
  • May need some support in adulthood

The severity of a learning disability can be different for each person. Most people with a learning disability have a mild learning disability. Children with a mild learning disability will be able to communicate and learn, but at a slower pace than their peers and with support. Some people have a more severe learning disability and have very limited language and skills.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how people think and see the world.

Children with autism:

  • Can be very intelligent or find academic learning difficult
  • Find it difficult to understand others. For example, they may find it hard to read facial expressions and understand other people’s feelings and behaviour
  • May have a different way of communicating
  • Tend to prefer to follow the same routines and may do the same things over and over again
  • May focus well on things that interest them, sometimes called special interests
  • May be good at following rules and have good attention to detail
  • Can be over or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as noise, light, taste

How are learning disabilities and autism different?

Learning

Children with a learning disability learn much more slowly than their peers, but in a typical way. They are likely to be learning things more than 2 years behind their peers at school. They will be developing skills and knowledge, but at a slower rate than others their age. This means their skills and abilities will be lower than their actual age, and they may never develop some skills fully.

Children with autism can be very intelligent or can learn more slowly. However, they might learn best if learning includes things they are really interested in. They might find the sensory aspects of learning hard, such as being in a busy classroom. They might find social aspects of learning more difficult such as interpreting the feelings or behaviour of characters in books.

Play

Children with either a learning disability or autism may appear to play or have interests similar to a younger child.

For children with a learning disability, their play will be consistent with their learning development. As they are learning more slowly than their peers, their imagination and creativity are developing more slowly so their interests and play may seem immature for their age.

Children with autism tend to find imagination and flexible thinking (being able to come up with more than one way of doing a task) harder. This means that they are likely to find creative play such as role-play or writing stories hard. They may prefer more repetitive play, such as lining objects up, similar to a younger child. Children with autism tend to have a few intense interests, rather than liking a broader range of things.

Communication

There is a big difference in how children with autism and children with learning disabilities communicate.

As children with a learning disability are learning more slowly than their peers, their communication skills develop more slowly. Their communication skills will develop following a typical pattern, just more gradually.

They also may:

  • need extra time to process incoming information
  • not understand the meaning of the words or phrases
  • miss nonverbal language cues, such as  facial expressions and body language
  • find it hard to express their own needs

Children with autism will have communication skills that develop in a different way from their peers. This is part of the autism thinking style. They can have a very literal understanding of language and can find it hard to understand phrases like “it’s raining cats and dogs”, where we do not say what we mean.

Sometimes children with autism can communicate in unusual ways, such as copying phrases, making up words or speaking using accents. They may find it hard to read others’ body language and facial expressions and to use these themselves.

Both children with autism and children with a learning disability will need others to adapt their communication at times, to support their understanding.

Daily living skills

Children with a learning disability will learn daily living skills much more slowly than their peers, for example, self-care skills, money skills, and cooking skills. This means it is likely that someone with a learning disability may find it hard to live independently in adulthood.

Many children with autism can struggle with daily living skills, even if they are of average intelligence. Independence skills need practical problem solving and flexibility, such as what to do if the bus is late, which can be difficult skills for children with autism.

Sensory sensitivities

Everyone with an autism diagnosis has sensory differences. They may be over or under-sensitive to sensory information compared to others. This can mean they avoid or seek out particular sensations to make themselves feel comfortable. It is important to be mindful of this.

Sensory sensitivities are not typically part of having a learning disability. However, sensory sensitivities can be seen in children with a severe learning disability.

Emotional regulation

Both children with a learning disability and children with autism can find it hard to manage their emotions.

As children with a learning disability are learning more slowly than their peers, their skills in this area can be similar to that of a younger child. As they get older, they may learn more about how to recognise and manage their feelings. However, their ability to understand and communicate their feelings and needs may be limited.

Children with autism can find it difficult to recognise their own and other people’s emotions. Due to social and sensory difficulties, children with autism are likely to find more situations stressful, for example, school assemblies and parties. As a result, children with autism can often struggle to manage their emotions and become overwhelmed by them. They can learn how to recognise and manage their feelings, but this can take a lot of practice as it may not come naturally to them.


Managing change

Both children with a learning disability and children with autism can find changes to their routine hard.

For children with a learning disability, their difficulties in this area will be consistent with their learning level. The slower development of their communication, learning, and imagination skills means that they may not fully understand what is happening around them. Therefore, they may prefer routines and predictability to help them know what is happening. As their learning abilities develop as they get older, they may find it easier to be flexible when change happens.

For children with autism, change and unexpected events may always be uncomfortable and they may always prefer routine and repetition. The autism thinking style means that imagination can be hard.  Imagination is the skill we use to work out what to do when things do not go to plan. As this is difficult for them, they can find changes scary. However, it is possible for children with autism to develop strategies to manage anxiety around coping with change as they get older.

Living full lives

Both children with a learning disability and children with autism can live full and happy lives. They can both have friends, be important to others and do things that interest them. They can have their own home or tenancy, get married, and live with independence and choice. Many people with autism will be able to work, but might prefer adaptions in the workplace. People with a learning disability may find it harder to find employment, but can still find activities they enjoy and give them a sense of purpose.

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Disclaimer

Please note this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s. The details in this resource may not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If you have specific questions about how this resource relates to your child, please ask your doctor.

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