What is the difference between a communication disorder and a learning disability?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Learning disabilities and communication disorders are very closely linked. One can be the result of the other causing a vicious cycle that is only fixed through immediate intervention on either one. 

The reason why communication disorders are often present in learning disabled students (and vice versa) is basically because the student cannot engage in the cognitive processes that occur during input/output interaction. There is a difference between "hearing" and "listening". Hearing involves the use of all the parts of the ear. Listening involves important cognitive processes that include:

  • decoding
  • identifying patterns
  • establishing correlations
  • building schema

A student with communication disorders is not able to produce input nor output. This means that the student cannot put forth his or her thought processes through hearing or speaking, nor through reading and writing. This is when the learning delays and the learning gaps begin.

The two conditions, although closely connected, can also manifest independently in a student. According to the DSM-IV-TR there are four common types of communication disorders

  • Expressive- the student cannot or will not demonstrate language growth or development. No expression (verbal/non-verbal) is detected.
  • Mixed receptive/ Mixed Expressive- the student cannot verbalize nor understand what is being said. There is little to no sound/symbol/meaning connection and so expression cannot occur for there is no reaction to the input.
  • Phonological- student does not meet his or her developmental level when speaking; babbles, baby talks, still mispronounces (a lot)
  • OHI- Other hearing impaired or other health impaired. Causes may be genetic or a result of disease
  • Stuttering- interrupted utterances that prevent the flow of speech. 

Learning disabilities are different kinds of obstacles in the process of acquiring and processing information. This may or may have something in connection to a communication disorder, but may very well be an independent condition of its own. Examples include:

  • ADHD
  • Dislexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Asperger
  • Auditory processing disorder
  • dyscravia
  • mild cognitive impairment
  • pervasive developmental disorder

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