Learning Disabilities

Posted by Frank Gillespie MA

Every child has difficulties with school from time to time, but if they consistently have problems with a certain area of learning, it might indicate some kind of learning disorder. By understanding different types of learning disabilities, you can ensure your child gets the right help to overcome classroom challenges and succeed in life.

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are more than having occasional problems with homework or certain subjects. If a certain area of learning is consistently problematic in your child` life, it might be the sign of learning disability. The definition of learning disability refers to a wide variety of learning problems. Children with learning disabilities receive and process information in a different way. This can lead to problems 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.

What are the types of learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities look very different from one child to another. One child may struggle with reading and spelling, while another may have problems with math. The problems are very different, but they are all learning disorders, categorized by the affected specific learning area. The following section contains the possible symptoms of learning disabilities as well.

Learning disabilities in reading (dyslexia): reading disorder is the most common learning disability. A reading disability can affect any part of the reading process, including difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, word decoding, reading rate, prosody (oral reading with expression), and reading comprehension. There are different types of reading disabilities, of which dyslexia is one. Basic reading problem refers to the problem with understanding the relationship between sounds, letters and words. Reading comprehension problems refer to the inability to grasp the meaning of words, phrases, and paragraphs.

Symptoms of dyslexia include problems with:

    • phonemic awareness (the ability to break up words into their component sounds)


    • matching letter combinations to specific sounds (sound-symbol correspondence)


    • letter and word recognition


    • understanding words and ideas


    • reading speed and fluency


  • general vocabulary skills

Learning disabilities in writing (dysgraphia): Dysgraphia refers to the deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence. It 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 dysgraphia include problems with:

    • inattentiveness over details and neatness of writing (e.g. poor legibility, inconsistent form and size of letters, or unfinished letters, mixed upper case and lower case letters, misuse of lines and margins, excessive erasures)


    • consistency of writing (writing organization and coherence)


    • spelling consistency


    • accurately copying letters and words and inefficient speed of copying


    • writing without verbal cues or referring heavily on vision


    • translating ideas to writing, using the right words


    • writing position (e. g. odd wrist, arm, body, or paper orientations such as bending an arm into an L shape)


  • pain while writing (e.g. cramps)

Learning disabilities in math (dyscalculia): dyscalculia is difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic, numbers, operation signs, learning how to manipulate numbers, counting principles and learning facts in Mathematics (e. g. 5+5=10). 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.

Symptoms of dyscalculia include problems with:

    • reading analog clocks


    • conceptualizing time, judging the passing of time and working backwards in time (may be chronically late or early)


    • stating which of two numbers is larger


    • financial planning or budgeting


    • multiplication- tables, and subtraction-tables, addition tables, division tables, mental arithmetic, etc.


    • grasping and remembering mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences


    • mentally estimating the measurement of an object or distance


Learning disabilities in motor skills (dyspraxia): dyspraxia is a brain-based condition that makes it hard to plan and coordinate physical movement. Dyspraxia is often referred to as developmental coordination disorder, motor learning difficulty, motor planning difficulty and apraxia of speech. It affects fine motor skills (e.g. cutting, writing) or gross motor skills (e.g. running, jumping). Children with dyspraxia tend to struggle with balance and posture. They may appear clumsy or “out of sync” with their environment.

Symptoms of dyspraxia include problems with:

    • physical abilities that require hand-eye coordination (e. g. holding a pencil or buttoning a shirt)


    • learning to jump and skip


    • developing left- or right-hand dominance


    • holding objects without dropping them


    • grasping pencils and writing or drawing


    • enunciating words


    • speaking at the right speed, volume and pitch


  • playing and interacting with other kids (e. g. often bumping into people and things

Learning disabilities in language (aphasia/dysphasia): speech disorders in which there is impairment of the power of expression by speech, writing, or signs, or impairment of the power of comprehension of spoken or written language. More severe forms of dysphasia are called aphasia.

Symptoms of a language-based learning disorder include problems with:

    • verbal language skills


  • ability to retell a story
  • fluency of speech
  • understanding the meaning of words, parts of speech, directions, etc.

What are the causes of learning disabilities?

Researchers do not know exactly what causes learning disabilities, but they appear to be related to differences in brain structure. These differences are present from birth and often are inherited. Non-hereditary causes may include factors that affect a developing fetus, such as alcohol or drug use. Other factors in an infant’s environment may play a role as well such as poor nutrition and exposure to toxins. Sometimes a person may develop a learning disability later in life. Possible causes in such a case include dementia or a traumatic brain injury.

Difficulties in school doesn’t always mean that the child has a learning disability. Anxiety, depression, stressful events, emotional trauma, and other conditions affecting concentration make learning more challenging. Also, there are other disorders such as ADHD and autism which sometimes co-occur and are often confused with learning disabilities.

    • ADHD – While Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not considered a learning disability, it can certainly disrupt learning. Children with ADHD often have problems sitting still, staying focused, following instructions, staying organized, and completing homework.


  • Autism – Pervasive developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome can strongly affect mastering certain academic skills. Children with autism spectrum disorder may have trouble communicating, reading body language, learning basic skills, making friends, and making eye contact.

However, while learning disabilities can cause many difficulties and frustrations in children`s lives, they are not always impassable obstacles. The good news is that the brain has a lifelong ability to change. Throughout life, the brain is able to form new connections and generate new brain cells in response to experience and learning. This is why children should receive the support necessary to promote their intellectual development early on.

Diagnosing learning disabilities

It’s not always easy to identify learning disabilities. Because of the wide variations, there is no unique symptom that would clearly prove the existence of the disorder. Even experts often confuse symptoms with other disorders such as ADHD.

The above warning signs may help you catch a learning disorder early and quickly take steps to get your child help. Contacting a professional is highly recommended when there is a consistent unevenness in your child’s ability to master certain skills. The sooner you move forward, the better your child's chances for reaching his or her full potential. Take your child`s struggle seriously if you suspect something is wrong and don’t listen to advice like “wait and see” or “don’t worry about it”. You know your child better than anyone else.

Diagnosing a learning disability is a process. It involves testing, understanding the child’s history, and observation by a trained specialist. Child psychologists and therapists are able to test for and diagnose learning disabilities.

Treatment for learning disabilities

Learning disabilities have no cure, but early intervention can provide tools and strategies to lessen their effects. Children with learning disabilities can be successful in school and work and in their personal lives.

The symptoms of learning disabilities are often overlooked or attributed to the student being lazy, unmotivated, not caring, or just simply slower than others. The truth is 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. Getting help earlier increases the likelihood for success in school and later in life. If learning disabilities remain untreated, a child may begin to feel frustrated with schoolwork, which can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and other problems.

Interventions vary depending on the nature and extent of the disability. Usually, experts work to help a child learn skills by building on their strengths and developing ways to compensate for their weaknesses. Children diagnosed with learning and other disabilities can qualify for special educational services. This means that the child should receive his or her own Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP contains:

    • List of individualized goals for the child


    • Specified plan for services the youngster will receive


  • List of specialists who will work with the child

Children with learning disabilities sometimes have other conditions such as ADHD. These conditions require their own treatments, which may include therapy and medications.

How to help a child with learning disability

A child with a learning disability may struggle with low self-esteem, frustration, and other problems. Mental health professionals and child psychologists can help the youngster understand these feelings, develop coping tools, and build healthy relationships.

Besides getting professional help the role of parents is extremely important in building a strong support system for children with learning disabilities and helping them learn to express themselves, deal with frustration, and work through challenges.

As a parent, educate yourself about your child’s type of learning disability and how it affects your child, and learn about the most effective treatment options available. This can help you advocate for your child at school. But even if the school doesn’t have the resources to treat your child’s learning disability optimally, you can pursue these options on your own at home or with a therapist or tutor.

It is highly important to find and nurture your child`s strengths. Many children with learning disabilities might struggle in one area of learning but excel in another. Pay attention to your child’s interests and passions. Helping children with learning disorders develop their passions and strengths will probably help them with the areas of difficulty as well. Experiencing success in areas where they are good at will help to develop their self-esteem too.

Try to focus on your child`s growth as a person, and not just on academic achievements. Help him or her learn good social and emotional habits that are important in everyday life. Social and emotional skills are the most consistent indicators of success for all children—and that includes kids with learning disorders. They outweigh everything else, including academic skills, in predicting lifelong achievement and happiness.

Frank Gillespie MA

Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.


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