Learning Disability Defined
A learning disability refers to a group of specific disorders that affect a broad range of academic and functional skills including the ability to read, listen, speak, spell, write, calculate, and organize information. Dyslexia is a learning disability in the area of reading.
Having a learning disability means an individual has average intelligence with a significant weakness in one or more areas of learning. Individuals with learning disabilities learn differently because of differences in brain structure and/or function. It is estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of kids between ages 6 and 17 have learning disabilities.
School-aged children and adolescents who have a learning disability are likely to be eligible for accommodations through special education or 504 services in school. College students with a learning disability might also be eligible for accommodations through 504 services. If identified early, difficulties due to a learning disability may be significantly lessened with appropriate interventions and accommodations, allowing for students to succeed in school and college. A psychological assessment can help determine whether a learning disability is present, whether an individual may be eligible for some services and accommodations, and how to best capitalize on strengths and remediate areas of weakness.
Dyslexia is difficulty learning to read, despite typical reading instruction and exposure to books. The majority of children with dyslexia struggle with phonological processing (understanding how letters and sounds go together) and with phonemic awareness (how words can be segmented into discrete sounds). While the brains of children without dyslexia typically process sounds in a way that makes reading acquisition a natural process, children with dyslexia struggle with the basics of reading. Without identification and specific intervention, these children continue to struggle with the reading process. Without specialized instruction, students with dyslexia may learn how to read many words and often are able to use contextual cues to assist in their reading comprehension. However, their reading fluency (ability to read quickly and smoothly) suffers, leading to continued struggles and frustrations with reading. Children with dyslexia typically have average or better cognitive (intellectual) abilities and are seen by parents and teachers as bright and as having strong reasoning skills, but they are often described as not reaching their potential. Children with dyslexia may begin to become frustrated at school and their earlier apparent love of learning and curiosity may begin to suffer as they start to identify themselves as being “stupid” and unable to learn. In reality, these children simply have one deficit (reading) among a sea of strengths. Since reading is the primary goal of early education, their “failure” at this task can set the tone for how they experience school.
Early Signs of Dyslexia
The earliest signs of dyslexia can be apparent as early as 4 years of age. If there is a family history of reading difficulties, pay close attention to the following warning signs of dyslexia:
- Delay in onset of speech
- Poor pronunciation of words or baby talk
- Difficulty with learning nursery rhymes
- Poor sensitivity to rhyming
- Difficulty learning names of letters in kindergarten
- Difficulty associating sounds with letters consistently in 1st grade
- Difficulty understanding how words can be “broken apart” into individual sounds
- Difficulty reading grade level text smoothly and fluently
- Reading that is very slow and labored
Please note that reversing letters or mirror writing are not specific signs of dyslexia, though it may occasionally occur because the letters are not as meaningful to children with dyslexia, resulting in a poorer grasp on what the letters are “supposed” to look like.
Understand the benefits of having an assessment for dyslexia.
Links and additional resources:
- International Dyslexia Association
- Dyslexia fact sheets from the International Dyslexia Association
- Austin branch of the International Dyslexia Association
- Website for parents of children with learning difficulties
- Link to the book Overcoming Dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.
Dysgraphia is a condition that adversely affects a person’s writing abilities. More specifically, it significantly impacts the physical reproduction of letters and words – the fine motor act of writing is impaired. Dysgraphia can present as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting, and trouble expressing thoughts effectively on paper. Some people also use dysgraphia to mean a disorder of written expression/written expression disability (i.e., the content of writing, punctuation, usage, grammar is impaired). However, most professionals refer to dysgraphia when they are referring to the physical act of writing and use the term written expression disability or a disorder of written expression to refer to written expression content.
Individuals with dysgraphia may form improperly sized and spaced letters or write incorrect or misspelled words. In addition, dysgraphia can often have a negative impact on school performance due to problems with note taking or copying from the board and difficulty taking essay exams. School-aged children and adolescents with dysgraphia may be eligible for accommodations through special education or 504 services in school.
Accommodations/interventions for dysgraphia may include providing alternatives to written expression (such as allowing oral book reports), altering tasks to minimize writing requirements, allowing extra time on tests involving writing, and providing direct instruction for improved handwriting and writing skills. Individuals with dysgraphia may be eligible for access to a computer and benefit from using a word processing program to reduce problems with handwriting and spelling.
Dyscalculia is a math related learning disability. Children with dyscalculia have difficulty understanding and remembering numbers and often struggle with tasks that require the ability to manipulate numbers such as word problems, making change, and telling time. Research estimates that dyscalculia effects between 3.6 and 6.5% of the population. It occurs at all levels of intellectual functioning and appears to occur equally in boys and girls. Dyscalculic children often have strong language skills but are inconsistent in their ability to perform basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, & division). Children with dyscalculia struggle to understand abstract concepts like time and directions and have difficulty retaining mathematical concepts like formulas or the order of operations.
Some strategies for coping with dyscalculia include using diagrams and manipulatives to make math concepts and problems more concrete, use of colored pencils to identify the various steps in a problem, and the use of mnemonic devices to help children remember the steps to a problem. Students with dyscalculia might be eligible for special education or 504 services depending upon the severity of the disability and their level of educational need. A comprehensive psychological assessment by a Licensed Psychologist at the ApaCenter can help determine whether your child meets diagnostic criteria for dyscalculia and is eligible for services and accommodations at school.
For more information about learning disabilites, visit:
Learning Disabilities Association of America