What Are the Differences Between Developmental Delays and Learning Disabilities?

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Developmental delays and learning disabilities are hard to define and even trickier to distinguish from one another. In general, depending on how the terms are used, developmental delays are actually disabilities that impact more than one part of a child's development, while learning disabilities are delays that impact just a single aspect of academic learning.

But the reality is that developmental delays, developmental disabilities, and learning disabilities are not always discrete issues. All three are grouped together under the name neurodevelopmental disorders in the official Diagnostic Manual (DSM-5). What's more, different practitioners may use different terms to describe the same things.

In this article, you'll learn about the specific diagnoses that fall in the learning disability and developmental delay categories. You'll also discover how these two groups of diagnoses relate to and interact with one another.

What Is a Developmental Delay?

If your child has a developmental delay, they have not reached one or more developmental milestones in a timely manner. Developmental milestones are expected physical, emotional, behavioral, and intellectual achievements that typically occur within a particular time period. Examples include rolling over, speaking in sentences, toilet learning, and so forth.

"Developmental disabilities are usually present at birth, but not in all cases," says Bela Gayton, MEd, a disability advocate based in Tennessee. "They involve underdevelopment or delays in meeting developmental milestones during childhood. These disabilities often involve multiple areas of the body." Many developmental delays begin at birth; this is certainly the case for medically diagnosable disorders such as spina bifida and cerebral palsy and is generally the case for autism and ADHD. Some developmental delays, however, are acquired as the result of brain injury or illness.

A developmental delay can be relatively minor or it can be life-changing. It may mean that your child is simply developing certain skills more slowly than usual but will catch up soon. It may mean that your child is at risk of a specific learning disability such as dyslexia (a disability that is specific to reading). Or it may mean that your child could be diagnosed with a developmental disability.

Some practitioners and researchers use the terms developmental delay and developmental disability interchangeably. Sometimes this is because they're not yet sure whether a child will grow out of a delay, and sometimes they choose the word "delay" as a way to soften a diagnosis.

The word "delay," of course, suggests something that will sooner or later arrive: a train that is delayed will get to the station sooner or later. And many children with developmental delays will in fact catch up to their typically-developing peers. The word "disability," however, suggests (and means) a lifelong developmental difference that may be mild or severe.

Types of Developmental Delays and Disabilities

A developmental delay or disability need not be a major hurdle, particularly when it's recognized and treated early on. Some developmental delays or disabilities, however, are severe and make tasks of daily life difficult or impossible.

"Sometimes it’s hard to determine if a young child has a delay or a disability," says Amanda Morin of Understood.org, a nonprofit that advocates for a better understanding of disabilities. "That’s one reason doctors may use the words interchangeably. Even when it’s not clear what’s causing the delay, early intervention often helps kids catch up."

There are four groups of developmental delays which include physical, learning, language, and behavioral delays. Within these groups are smaller categories of delays which, in turn, may be broken down into even more specific diagnoses. The CDC lists all of these diagnoses as "developmental disabilities." Some are actually groups of diagnoses rather than individual diagnoses.

They include:

Confusingly, "learning disorders" are actually part of the list of "developmental delays." This is the case despite the fact that the CDC itself has a separate page about learning disorders that doesn't mention the term "developmental disability." Even within the same government agency that provides services and funding, there is no internal agreement as to the distinction between developmental delays, developmental disabilities, and learning disabilities.

Adding to the confusion over what is "learning" versus a "developmental" delay or disability, some of the items on the list (such as language disorders) are specific to just one area of development while others (such as autism spectrum disorder) impact multiple areas.

What Is a Learning Disability?

Learning disabilities, as the name implies, are disabilities (or developmental delays or developmental disabilities depending on your choice of terminology) that impact specific aspects of academic learning and/or performance. The CDC refers to learning disabilities as "learning disorders," which is even more confusing, while the DSM has just one diagnostic category for all learning disabilities called "Specific Learning Disorder."

Learning disabilities are very common among children with more global delays and disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. Thus, some children with learning disabilities have no other delays or disabilities while others have a range of developmental disabilities that make learning in general quite challenging.

In general, learning disabilities only become obvious when a child is asked to perform in an academic setting. Difficulty with reading or math is only relevant when reading and math are on the curriculum. Learning disabilities are, therefore, usually treated in the school setting. It is often possible for a child with a learning disability to overcome or manage the disability through specialized therapy, tutoring, or accommodations.

Types of Learning Disabilities

There are seven types of learning disabilities, many of which have sub-categories. They include:

  • Dyslexia – difficulty with reading
  • Dyscalculia – difficulty with math
  • Dysgraphia – difficulty with writing
  • Auditory processing disorder — difficulty with processing sounds
  • Language processing disorder — difficulty with understanding and expressing spoken language
  • Nonverbal learning disability — difficulty with making sense of nonverbal behaviors and social cues
  • Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit — difficulty with hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills

While it is very possible to have just one of these learning disabilities, it is also possible to have several. It is also possible to have (for example) difficulty with reading for reasons that don't relate to a learning disability. For example, a child with ADHD may have trouble focusing on written words for long enough to decode them, while a child with autism may be unable to grasp the abstract concept of written language.

It's also worth noting that these diagnoses are not in the DSM, and many are lumped together under the umbrella of "specific learning disorder."

What to Do If Your Child Is Identified as Having a Developmental Delay or Learning Disability

Before taking any action at all, it's important to understand exactly what a teacher, therapist, doctor, or other practitioner is actually telling you about your child's development. Consider asking some pointed questions; for example:

  • Are you seeing multiple developmental delays or just one?
  • What aspect(s) of my child's physical, emotional, intellectual, emotional, or behavioral development seems problematic?
  • When you say this is a "delay," do you mean this is something that my child can grow out of?
  • What do you think is causing the problem, and how can we address it?

If you feel there are legitimate concerns about your child's development, consider asking for a full evaluation. In the United States, the school district must pay for an evaluation if your child is not meeting grade level expectations; you also always have the option of having your child evaluated independently. Usually, an evaluation includes observations, questions, and specific non-medical tests and is conducted by a developmental pediatrician, psychologist, or neurologist, along with appropriate speech, occupational, and/or physical therapists.

Once you have the results of the evaluation, you can work with your team of doctors, educators, therapists, and family members to make a plan. That plan can range from simple supports and accommodations to intensive therapies and special educational services or settings.

A Word From Verywell

It can be upsetting to hear that your child has a developmental delay, developmental disability, or learning disability. The good news is that any developmental difference can be addressed and improved through a combination of early intervention, appropriate therapies, accommodations, and supports.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.