Specific Learning Disorder
A specific learning disorder (SLD) can affect how individuals learn in a variety of ways including how they encode, remember, understand or express information. A SLD may be defined as problems people encounter in learning that affect achievement and daily life skills. SLD differs from Intellectual Disability, in that Intellectual Disability is characterised by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviour, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This developmental disorder involves difficulties learning and using academic 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.
(Previously known as Disorder of Reading/Dyslexia, Disorder of Writing/Dysgraphia, Disorder of Mathematics/Dyscalculia)
Symptoms for 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.
Assessment and Diagnosis of a 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 psychometric tests used to assess SLD include a cognitive assessment (e.g., WISC-5), and an assessment of academic achievement (e.g., WIAT-III)
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-III). 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.
The DSM-IV classifies SLD's under one diagnosis with 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 such as reading, spelling, writing, and mathematics, have to be taught and learned explicitly. SLD disorder disrupts the normal pattern of learning academic skills; it is not simply a consequence of lack of opportunity of learning or to receive adequate 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. Often, 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, for a diagnosis of SLD, 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 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
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:
Grammar and punctuation accuracy
Clarity or organization of written expression
3. Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics includes possible deficits in:
Memorization of arithmetic facts
Accurate or fluent calculation
Accurate math reasoning
Treatment for Specific Learning Disorder
The psychologists at Poutlon Respondek Clinical Psychology take an approach to helping individuals experiencing a learning disability to teach learning skills by building on the individual's abilities and strengths while providing strategies to compensate for areas of difficulty.
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.
In addition to 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.