Understanding Different Types of Learning Disabilities

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can frustrate students, confound parents and challenge educators. But all are treatable once they have been detected and diagnosed.

Learning disabilities do not indicate intelligence, nor do they spring from emotional disturbances, physical challenges or poverty. Rather, learning differences result from the way a person's brain is wired to process information and make connections. They are common, neurobiological in origin and often inherited from a parent.

"What we know today is that a lot of kids are affected. This is not some rare situation," says Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

"Some of the most successful people in the world have dyslexia or ADHD," says Saltz, who is also the author of " The Power of Different: the Link Between Disorder and Genius." "The most important thing is to recognize the nature of the student's wiring and get together with your school, your teacher and a treater to work out the best methods to help your child be as successful as possible in the classroom."

Learning Disabilities Are Common

When a child is diagnosed with a learning difference, parents often discover they, themselves, have struggled with similar issues. That is one reason parents often instinctively worry before schools may formally intervene, a process that typically takes place sometime between second and fifth grade.

[READ: What is an IEP?]

"Parents often sense something is going on before the school does," says Laura Reber, a school psychologist and founder of Progress Parade, an online tutoring company in Illinois that specializes in diverse learners. "Essentially, learning disabilities are mostly in reading, writing and math."

An estimated one in five students experience difficulty learning or paying attention in class, according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. However, just one in 16 students benefit from professional diagnosis and go on to receive special public education help known as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The Learning Disabilities Association, a national advocacy group founded by parents, says that half of all children with learning disabilities are never diagnosed.

Common Signs of Learning Disabilities

Often, learning differences do not become obvious until a child reaches school age. Even then, difficulties may be subtle and hard to recognize. According to the National Institutes of Health, learning disability symptoms include the following:

-- Problems reading and/or writing

-- Problems with math

-- Poor memory

-- Problems paying attention

-- Trouble following directions

-- Clumsiness

-- Trouble telling time

-- Problems staying organized

While experts caution that only a professional can formally diagnose a learning disability, other signs may be:

-- Acting without really thinking about possible outcomes (impulsiveness)

-- Acting out in school or in social situations

-- Difficulty staying focused or being easily distracted

-- Difficulty saying a word correctly out loud or expressing thoughts

-- Problems with school performance

-- Speaking like a younger child; using short, simple phrases; or leaving out words in sentences

-- Having a hard time listening

-- Problems dealing with changes in schedule or situations

-- Problems understanding words or concepts

Professional Diagnosis and Treatment

Professional evaluation is often achieved via a team approach involving parents or guardians, educators and specialists. According to the National Institutes of Health, collaboration and communication among this team over time is essential, as are some other basic measures:

-- A medical exam, including a neurological exam, to rule out other possible causes of the child's difficulties. These might include emotional disorders, intellectual and developmental disabilities and brain diseases.

-- Reviewing the child's developmental, social and school performance.

-- A discussion of family history.

-- Academic and psychological testing.

While the path to diagnosis and successful intervention can vary, definitions for common learning disabilities are rooted in how the brain responds to reading, writing and math, as well as the ability to pay attention, focus, organize and retain information.

Common Learning Disabilities

-- Dyslexia. Difficulty spelling, recognizing words and making connections between letters and sounds may signal dyslexia. Challenges or delays in speaking, learning songs or rhymes, remembering numbers in sequence and discerning left from right can be symptoms.

-- Dysgraphia. Writing is the challenge here. Students may have distorted handwriting, omit words and struggle to put thoughts to paper.

-- Dyscalculia. Difficulty with numbers, fractions, math concepts, making change and telling time all can be markers of dyscalculia.

-- ADHD and Related Disorders. Difficulty paying attention, organizing thoughts and with executive function may signal attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Learning Disabilities Association of America groups ADHD with related conditions, such as attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression.

[Read: Finding the Best ADHD Boarding Schools]

Early Intervention and Treatment

Students with learning differences can succeed with targeted, adaptive help and support from parents, teachers and professionals. Melaura Erickson-Tomaino, co-founder of Port View Preparatory School in California and a specialist in developmental psychology, says learning disabilities can impact self esteem.

"These kids feel unsuccessful on a regular basis," she says. "They feel stupid. They are made fun of. So much is on the line."

In addition, where one learning disability arises, other challenges may come along with it, such as anxiety disorders. Erickson-Tomaino's 5-year-old daughter has already received occupational therapy to improve handwriting for dysgraphia, which makes handwriting and fine motor skills difficult. Now, she shows signs of dyslexia as she struggles to consistently recognize letters.

As she entered kindergarten this fall, Erickson-Tomaino met with the principal so she could be assigned to a flexible, creative teacher equipped to deal with such issues. In addition, Erickson-Tomaino uses a "multi-sensory" approach common to learning disabilities education. For example, the alphabet book she uses shows pictures of animals that correspond to each letter. They read aloud together, and then, her daughter writes letters down. This way, handwriting, auditory practice, reading comprehension and visual cues all come together to facilitate learning.

Communication, persistence, advocacy and creativity are all traits students, parents and educators need to succeed, says Melissa Holman-Kursky, founder of CognitionSF, a California-based firm specializing in helping parents and students devise "work-around" techniques to maximize their strengths. For example, for children with ADHD, a coping strategy might be learning to set reminders on their phone. Students who struggle to put thoughts to paper can request a teacher talk them through a test.

"Hearing a label of 'learning disability' can be hard on parents, but it is often a relief to children," Holman-Kursky says. "The power of learning about themselves as learners is life-changing. My mantra is for everybody to take a deep breath. Development is on our side. With intervention, we can prevent a lot of things from getting worse."

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.