Learning Disorder

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities, or learning disorders, are an umbrella term for a wide variety of learning problems. A learning disability is not a problem with intelligence or motivation. Kids with learning disabilities aren’t lazy or dumb. In fact, most are just as smart as everyone else. Their brains are simply wired differently. This difference affects how they receive and process information.

Simply put, children and adults with learning disabilities see, hear, and understand things differently. This can lead to trouble with learning new information and skills, and putting them to use. The most common types of learning disabilities involve problems with reading, writing, math, reasoning, listening, and speaking.

Children with learning disabilities can, and do, succeed

It can be tough to face the possibility that your child has a learning disorder. No parents want to see their children suffer. You may wonder what it could mean for your child’s future, or worry about how your kid will make it through school. Perhaps you’re concerned that by calling attention to your child’s learning problems they might be labeled “slow” or assigned to a less challenging class.

 

But the important thing to remember is that most kids with learning disabilities are just as smart as everyone else. They just need to be taught in ways that are tailored to their unique learning styles. By learning more about learning disabilities in general, and your child’s learning difficulties in particular, you can help pave the way for success at school and beyond.

 

Paying attention to normal developmental milestones for toddlers and preschoolers is very important. Early detection of developmental differences may be an early signal of a learning disability and problems that are spotted early can be easier to correct.

A developmental lag might not be considered a symptom of a learning disability until your child is older, but if you recognize it when your child is young, you can intervene early. You know your child better than anyone else does, so if you think there is a problem, it doesn’t hurt to get an evaluation. You can also ask your pediatrician for a developmental milestones chart.

Problems with reading, writing, and math

Learning disabilities are often grouped by school-area skill set. If your child is in school, the types of learning disorders that are most conspicuous usually revolve around reading, writing, or math

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Types of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math.  They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory and attention.  It is important to realize that learning disabilities can affect an individual’s life beyond academics and can impact relationships with family, friends and in the workplace.

Since difficulties with reading, writing and/or math are recognizable problems during the school years, the signs and symptoms of learning disabilities are most often diagnosed during that time.  However, some individuals do not receive an evaluation until they are in post-secondary education or adults in the workforce.  Other individuals with learning disabilities may never receive an evaluation and go through life, never knowing why they have difficulties with academics and why they may be having problems in their jobs or in relationships with family and friends.

Learning disabilities should not be confused with learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.

Generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. There often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as “hidden disabilities”: the person looks perfectly “normal” and seems to be a very bright and intelligent person, yet may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age.

A learning disability cannot be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong challenge. However, with appropriate support and intervention, people with learning disabilities can achieve success in school, at work, in relationships, and in the community.

In Federal law, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term is “specific learning disability,” one of 13 categories of disability under that law.

“Learning Disabilities” is an “umbrella” term describing a number of other, more specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia. 

 

Learning disabilities in reading (dyslexia)

There are two types of learning disabilities in reading. Basic reading problems occur when there is difficulty understanding the relationship between sounds, letters and words. Reading comprehension problems occur when there is an inability to grasp the meaning of words, phrases, and paragraphs.

Signs of reading difficulty include problems with:

  • letter and word recognition
  • understanding words and ideas
  • reading speed and fluency
  • general vocabulary skills

Learning disabilities in math (dyscalculia)

Learning disabilities in math vary greatly depending on the child’s other strengths and weaknesses. A child’s ability to do math will be affected differently by a language learning disability, or a visual disorder or a difficulty with sequencing, memory or organization.

A child with a math-based learning disorder may struggle with memorization and organization of numbers, operation signs, and number “facts” (like 5+5=10 or 5×5=25). Children with math learning disorders might also have trouble with counting principles (such as counting by twos or counting by fives) or have difficulty telling time.

Learning disabilities in writing (dysgraphia)

Learning disabilities in writing can involve the physical act of writing or the mental activity of comprehending and synthesizing information. Basic writing disorder refers to physical difficulty forming words and letters. Expressive writing disability indicates a struggle to organize thoughts on paper.

Symptoms of a written language learning disability revolve around the act of writing. They include problems with:

  • neatness and consistency of writing
  • accurately copying letters and words
  • spelling consistency
  • writing organization and coherence

Other types of learning disabilities and disorders

Reading, writing, and math aren’t the only skills impacted by learning disorders. Other types of learning disabilities involve difficulties with motor skills (movement and coordination), understanding spoken language, distinguishing between sounds, and interpreting visual information.

Learning disabilities in motor skills (dyspraxia)

Motor difficulty refers to problems with movement and coordination whether it is with fine motor skills (cutting, writing) or gross motor skills (running, jumping). A motor disability is sometimes referred to as an “output” activity meaning that it relates to the output of information from the brain. In order to run, jump, write or cut something, the brain must be able to communicate with the necessary limbs to complete the action.

Signs that your child might have a motor coordination disability include problems with physical abilities that require hand-eye coordination, like holding a pencil or buttoning a shirt.

Learning disabilities in language (aphasia/dysphasia)

Language and communication learning disabilities involve the ability to understand or produce spoken language. Language is also considered an output activity because it requires organizing thoughts in the brain and calling upon the right words to verbally explain something or communicate with someone else.

Signs of a language-based learning disorder involve problems with verbal language skills, such as the ability to retell a story and the fluency of speech, as well as the ability to understand the meaning of words, parts of speech, directions, etc.

Auditory and visual processing problems: the importance of the ears and eyes

The eyes and the ears are the primary means of delivering information to the brain, a process sometimes called “input.” If either the eyes or the ears aren’t working properly, learning can suffer.

Auditory processing disorder – Professionals may refer to the ability to hear well as “auditory processing skills” or “receptive language.” The ability to hear things correctly greatly impacts the ability to read, write and spell. An inability to distinguish subtle differences in sound, or hearing sounds at the wrong speed make it difficult to sound out words and understand the basic concepts of reading and writing.

Visual processing disorder – Problems in visual perception include missing subtle differences in shapes, reversing letters or numbers, skipping words, skipping lines, misperceiving depth or distance, or having problems with eye–hand coordination. Professionals may refer to the work of the eyes as “visual processing.” Visual perception can affect gross and fine motor skills, reading comprehension, and math.

Common types of learning disabilities

Dyslexia – Difficulty with reading

  • Problems reading, writing, spelling, speaking

Dyscalculia – Difficulty with math

  • Problems doing math problems, understanding time, using money

Dysgraphia – Difficulty with writing

  • Problems with handwriting, spelling, organizing ideas

Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder) – Difficulty with fine motor skills

  • Problems with hand-eye coordination, balance, manual dexterity

Dysphasia/Aphasia – Difficulty with language

  • Problems understanding spoken language, poor reading comprehension

Auditory Processing Disorder – Difficulty hearing differences between sounds

  • Problems with reading, comprehension, language

Visual Processing Disorder – Difficulty interpreting visual information

 

  • Problems with reading, math, maps, charts, symbols, pictures

Learning disabilities look very different from one child to another. One child may struggle with reading and spelling, while another loves books but can’t understand math. Still another child may have difficulty understanding what others are saying or communicating out loud. The problems are very different, but they are all learning disorders.

It’s not always easy to identify learning disabilities. Because of the wide variations, there is no single symptom or profile that you can look to as proof of a problem. However, some warning signs are more common than others at different ages. If you’re aware of what they are, you’ll be able to catch a learning disorder early and quickly take steps to get your child help.

The following checklist lists some common red flags for learning disorders. Remember that children who don’t have learning disabilities may still experience some of these difficulties at various times. The time for concern is when there is a consistent unevenness in your child’s ability to master certain skills.

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities: Preschool age

  • Problems pronouncing words
  • Trouble finding the right word
  • Difficulty rhyming
  • Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, days of the week
  • Difficulty following directions or learning routines
  • Difficulty controlling crayons, pencils, and scissors, or coloring within the lines
  • Trouble with buttons, zippers, snaps, learning to tie shoes

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities: Ages 5-9

  • Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • Unable to blend sounds to make words
  • Confuses basic words when reading
  • Slow to learn new skills
  • Consistently misspells words and makes frequent errors
  • Trouble learning basic math concepts
  • Difficulty telling time and remembering sequences

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities: Ages 10-13

  • Difficulty with reading comprehension or math skills
  • Trouble with open-ended test questions and word problems
  • Dislikes reading and writing; avoids reading aloud
  • Poor handwriting

 

  • Poor organizational skills (bedroom, homework, desk is messy and disorganized)
  • Trouble following classroom discussions and expressing thoughts aloud
  • Spells the same word differently in a single document

Diagnosis and testing for learning disabilities and disorders

As you’ve already learned, diagnosing a learning disability isn’t always easy. Don’t assume you know what your child’s problem is, even if the symptoms seem clear. It’s important to have your child tested and evaluated by a qualified professional. That said, you should trust your instincts. If you think something is wrong, listen to your gut. If you feel that a teacher or doctor is minimizing your concerns, seek a second opinion. Don’t let anyone tell you to “wait and see” or “don’t worry about it” if you see your child struggling. Regardless of whether or not your child’s problems are due to a learning disability, intervention is needed. You can’t go wrong by looking into the issue and taking action.

Keep in mind that finding someone who can help may take some time and effort. Even experts mix up learning disabilities with ADHD and other behavioral problems sometimes. You may have to look around a bit or try more than one professional. In the meantime, try to be patient, and remember that you won’t always get clear answers. Try not to get too caught up in trying to determine the label for your child’s disorder. Leave that to the professionals. Focus instead on steps you can take to support your child and address their symptoms in practical ways.

The diagnosis and testing process for learning disabilities

Diagnosing a learning disability is a process. It involves testing, history taking, and observation by a trained specialist. Finding a reputable referral is important. Start with your child’s school, and if they are unable to help you, ask your insurance company, doctor, or friends and family who have dealt successfully with learning disabilities.

Types of specialists who may be able to test for and diagnose learning disabilities include:

  1. Clinical psychologists
  2. School psychologists
  3. Child psychiatrists
  4. Educational psychologists
  5. Developmental psychologists
  6. Neuropsychologist
  7. Psychometrist
  8. Occupational therapist (tests sensory disorders that can lead to learning problems)
  9. Speech and language therapist

 

Sometimes several professionals coordinate services as a team to obtain an accurate diagnosis. They may ask for input from your child’s teachers. Recommendations can then be made for special education services or speech-language therapy within the school system. A nonpublic school that specializes in treating learning disabilities might be a good alternative if the public school is not working out. For a list of nonpublic schools in your area go to the website for your state’s Department of Education.

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