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What is a learning disorder?

Updated: Apr 16

A desk that moves up and down can help support students with learning disorders

What is a learning disorder? A specific learning disorder impacts an area of learning (e.g., reading, writing, and/or math). Specific learning disorders are impacted by genetics, so if someone in a family has a specific learning disorder, others in the same family may also have learning differences. An individual with a learning disorder diagnosis is often smart, yet struggles to learn specific skills that appear to come easily for others their same age.

A specific learning disorder is diagnosed through testing to look at the individual’s academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, and/or math) and cognitive skills (e.g., verbal skills, nonverbal skills, working memory, processing speed). Testing is helpful to provide more information about areas of strength and difference in order to direct interventions and supports through school, at home, and/or with a tutor. Areas of strength can also possibly be used to support areas of weakness. For example, if an individual lacks an interest in reading, but is very interested in learning more about unicorns, her parents could give her books (at her reading level) about unicorns and also read books (above her reading level) to her with unicorns as the main character. An evaluation can also help determine if academic weaknesses can be explained by a specific learning disorder, or instead, are better explained to other factors (e.g., inattention, lack of exposure to academic material, visual impairment, behavior concerns, depression, and/or anxiety).

It is also important to note that all students may struggle with academic material from time to time. An individual with a specific learning disorder struggles with a particular area despite other supports (e.g., extra time meeting with a teacher, additional support from parents, consistent meetings with a tutor). Likely, this academic area has always been more difficult for the individual. Since a specific learning disorder impacts academic areas, it is often diagnosed during the school years. However, this is not always the case, as some individuals have developed coping strategies (e.g., spending much, much longer than their peers completing homework) that help them perform well, yet often require considerably more effort and/or time.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), 2.3 million students have been diagnosed with some type of specific learning disorder. The most commonly diagnosed specific learning disorder is related to reading. A learning disorder in reading can adversely impact an individual’s ability to correctly read words (e.g., reading “cat” for “can”), read words quickly, correctly sound out (or decode) words, and comprehend what has been read. Dyslexia refers to a specific pattern of reading differences that include weaknesses related to correct or fluent word reading, poor sounding out skills, and weak spelling abilities.

A specific learning disorder in written expression adversely impacts an individual’s ability to share information through writing. Differences can be seen in weaknesses spelling words correctly, using consistent capitalization and punctuation, and/or organizing written work.

Historically, dysgraphia was a term used to describe differences in an individual’s ability to write, related to fine motor skills. These weaknesses are now referred to as developmental coordination disorder.

A specific learning disorder in mathematics impacts an individual’s ability to display an understanding of number sense. Differences can be seen in weaknesses in understanding numbers and how numbers relate to one another (e.g., needing to count to determine which number is larger or smaller), accurately completing math facts (e.g., counting on fingers to complete single-digit math problems), quickly completing math facts, and/or correctly using math in everyday life (e.g., measurement). Dyscalculia refers to a specific pattern of math differences that include trouble processing numbers, learning math facts, and completing accurate and/or fluent math calculations.

If you have concerns about your child’s learning or your learning, completing an evaluation to gain more information about academic skills is very important! The earlier learning differences are identified, the sooner accommodations and supports can be put into place to help. Diagnosis, at any age, can be helpful and validating!

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