What signs suggest that someone might have a specific learning disorder?


Most commonly, either a parent or teacher first suspects a learning difficulty when a child is in the early years of primary school. However, there may be some signs of difficulty much earlier in development, especially if the learning disability affects spoken language. Children are expected to reach certain "milestones" of development such as the first word, the first step, and so on. The first sign of a learning disability may be noticed by observing delays in the child's skill development around language, attention and learning in the early years. For example, children may show difficulties in following directions, or may have a short attention span or memory problems.


Therefore, it is important if parents or teachers suspect that a child is experiencing difficulties in learning that the child is referred for detailed assessment. Identifying specific learning disabilities in adults can be difficult, as individuals may display a wide range of learning and performance characteristics and have by then developed strategies for managing or covering up their difficulties. Adults with specific learning disabilities are often unlikely to seek help themselves; instead concerns may arise as the result of a vocational assessment or other forms of language-based evaluations.


How is a learning disorder treated?


The approach to helping individuals experiencing a learning disability is to teach learning skills by building on the individual's abilities and strengths while providing strategies to compensate for areas of difficulty. As well as psychologists, other professionals such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists and special educators are likely to be involved and should be working as a team to develop programs that will benefit the individual.


Psychological treatment may also target non-academic difficulties that can sometimes occur alongside the learning difficulty. These may include behavioural problems such as disruptive behaviour in the classroom, social difficulties, and/or emotional problems such as depression and low self-esteem. Individuals with learning disabilities are often excluded from peer groups and can be the victims of school and workplace bullying. Social skills training can assist these individuals to adapt and fit into their social environment.


Characteristics of Specific Learning Disorder


Specific learning disorder is diagnosed through a clinical review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational, and family history, reports of test scores and teacher observations, and response to academic interventions.


The diagnosis requires persistent difficulties in reading, writing, arithmetic, or mathematical reasoning skills during formal years of schooling. Symptoms may include inaccurate or slow and effortful reading, poor written expression that lacks clarity, difficulties remembering number facts, or inaccurate mathematical reasoning.


Current academic skills must be well below the average range of scores in culturally and linguistically appropriate tests of reading, writing, or mathematics (including the WIAT-II). The individual’s difficulties must not be better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders and must significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living.

This developmental disorder involves difficulties learning and using academic skills.


“Specific Learning Disorder” has become the umbrella term for mathematics, reading, and written expression disorders in the updated DSM-5.


The DSM-IV previously classified these as separate diagnoses. Instead, these disorders are now housed under one diagnosis with added specifiers (e.g., specific learning disorder with impaired reading).In contrast to talking or walking, which are acquired developmental milestones that emerge with brain maturation, academic skills (e.g., reading, spelling, writing, mathematics) have to be taught and learned explicitly. Specific learning disorder disrupts the normal pattern of learning academic skills; it is not simply a consequence of lack of opportunity of learning or inadequate instruction.


A key feature is that the individual’s performance in a particular area is well below average for age. Oftentimes, individuals with a learning disorder will achieve at least 1.5 standard deviations below the norm for their age on standardized achievement tests within domain of difficulty.

Another core feature is that the learning difficulties are readily apparent in the early school years in most individuals. However, in others, the learning difficulties may not manifest fully until later school years, by which time learning demands have increased and exceed the individual’s limited capacities.


Finally, the learning difficulties are not better accounted for by intellectual disabilities, uncorrected visual or auditory acuity, other mental or neurological disorders, psychosocial adversity, lack of proficiency in the language of academic instruction, or inadequate educational instruction.

The following describe the updated 2013 DSM-5 diagnostic subtypes of Specific Learning Disorder:


1. Specific learning disorder with impairment in reading includes possible deficits in:


Word reading accuracy

Reading rate or fluency

Reading comprehension


Note: Dyslexia is an alternative term used to refer to a pattern of learning difficulties characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding and poor spelling abilities.


2. Specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression includes possible deficits in:


Spelling accuracy

Grammar and punctuation accuracy

Clarity or organization of written expression


3. Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics includes possible deficits in:


Number sense

Memorization of arithmetic facts

Accurate or fluent calculation

Accurate math reasoning

Specific Learning Disorder


(Previously known as Disorder of Reading/Dyslexia, Disorder of Writing/Dysgraphia, Disorder of Mathematics/Dyscalculia)


SLD differs from Intellectual Disability, in that Intellectual Disability is a disability characterised by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviour, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18 years.


What is a specific learning disorder?


A specific learning disorder can affect how individuals learn in a variety of ways including how they take in, remember, understand or express information. A specific learning disorder may be defined as problems people encounter in learning that affect achievement and daily life skills.


The most common forms of learning disorder are in reading and spelling, but they may also be found in other areas of functioning including spoken language, writing, and mathematics. Individuals can present with a specific difficulty in one or more areas and have average or above average performance in other areas. For example, a child who has a specific difficulty in reading and spelling may perform well in mathematics. However, for others there may be several overlapping areas of difficulty.

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