Learning disorders can make it difficult to perform at school or work, but the right diagnosis and support can make a big difference.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 1 in 5 children in the United States have a learning disability of some kind.
In a clinical context, learning disabilities fall into the category of neurodevelopmental disorders. Other terms used for these conditions include learning disorder, learning difference, or learning difficulty.
Healthcare professionals typically use the term “specific learning disorder” to refer to a diagnosed learning disorder. This term comes from the fifth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).”
A specific learning disorder can affect a child’s ability to learn basic academic skills such as reading, writing, and math.
Learning disorders can affect adults, too, particularly when they go undiagnosed in childhood. But you can do a lot to support your child — or yourself — and learn to navigate a learning disorder.
Read on for an in-depth exploration of learning disorders and a few tips for getting support.
You might have some familiarity with terms such as:
- dyslexia, which involves difficulty reading
- dyscalculia, which involves difficulty with numbers
- dysgraphia, which involves difficulty writing and spelling
But the DSM-5 doesn’t separate learning disorders into these categories. Instead, it has one diagnosis — specific learning disorder — that can involve three different subtypes:
- specific learning disorder with impairment in reading
- specific learning disorder with impairment in writing
- specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics
Though symptoms of a learning disorder may appear as early as preschool, experts typically won’t diagnose a learning disorder before grade school. That’s because a learning disorder diagnosis requires some exposure to education, so experts can confirm the symptoms and rule out other conditions.
Specific learning disorder with impairment in reading
Some people may refer to this condition as dyslexia.
This type of learning disorder can make it challenging to:
- read fluently
- associate letters with their sounds
- understand what you read
- spell correctly
- identify letters correctly
- find it difficult to match letters to sounds
- mispronounce common words
- have trouble distinguishing between letters that look similar (such as “b” and “d”)
- misspell words frequently, even after practice
- misunderstand wordplay
- have a hard time recognizing spelling errors
- have trouble understanding what you read
According to the International Dyslexia Association, roughly 15 to 20% of people have symptoms of this learning disorder.
Specific learning disorder with impairment in writing
Some people may call this condition dysgraphia.
This type of learning disorder affects your ability to write correctly, both by hand and when you type. In some cases, the symptoms can resemble motor skill challenges, though it’s possible to experience both.
You may have difficulty:
- forming letters correctly
- spelling accurately
- following grammar and punctuation rules
- expressing yourself clearly through written words
- holding writing tools
- writing neatly
- spacing words and letters consistently
You may also:
- have unusual, difficult-to-read, or distorted handwriting
- tend to skip letters when writing
- have difficulty with fine motor skills when doing other tasks such as using eating utensils or sewing
Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics
This learning disorder, sometimes referred to as dyscalculia, affects your ability to understand numbers and do math-related tasks.
The first symptom is usually difficulty with counting. Children with this learning disorder often start counting later than their peers. However, not every child who begins counting late has this condition.
Young children may find it challenging to:
- learn to count
- recognize patterns
- recognize numbers
- understand math signs such as plus and minus signs
- tell time
Older children and adults may have a hard time with:
- understanding basic math facts
- understanding concepts in math
- interpreting charts or graphs
- spatial awareness
This learning disorder can also affect everyday situations. For example, you might have trouble with:
- following cardinal directions such as north or south
- counting your change after making a purchase
- adding up how much the items in your shopping basket cost
- recognizing the actual distance between two things such as cars on the road or a person in the distance
Other conditions that may affect learning
Other neurodevelopmental conditions that can also affect learning include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): This mental health condition is characterized by high impulsivity, hyperactivity, or both.
- Developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia): This motor disorder can affect your motor skills, ability to plan, and coordination.
- Auditory processing disorder: If you have this condition, your brain has difficulty processing the sounds you hear.
These conditions don’t fall into the category of specific learning disorders, but their signs can sometimes resemble the signs of learning disorders.
What’s more, you can also have any of these conditions as well as a learning disorder. In fact, many people with ADHD also have a specific learning disorder.
Although experts don’t fully understand what causes learning disorders, they’ve
For example, evidence suggests dyslexia happens because of differences in the parts of the brain that affect reading.
Factors that may play a part in these brain differences include:
- Genetics: Learning disorders often
run in families, so you may have a higher chance of developing them if a parent or sibling has the same condition.
- Alcohol use during pregnancy: Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which are caused by alcohol use during pregnancy, may
contribute to learning disabilities.
- Brain trauma: Some evidence suggests traumatic brain injuries may affect brain processing speed, which can play a part in learning difficulties.
Things that don’t cause learning disorders
These factors have nothing to do with learning disorders:
- Lack of effort: A learning disorder doesn’t mean your child (or you) just need to try harder at school or work.
- Parenting style: Your child’s learning disorder doesn’t have anything to do with your parenting skills. Learning disorders develop regardless of parenting style. What’s more, while your support can go a long way toward helping a child manage a learning disorder, parental support can’t prevent a learning disorder or make it go away entirely.
- Lack of education: Educational support and accommodations can help people with learning disorders thrive. That said, learning disorders don’t develop because your child (or you) lacks access to educational opportunities.
Beyond directly affecting reading, writing, and mathematical skills, specific learning disorders can make school and work frustrating, especially when they go unrecognized and untreated.
Kids who have these conditions might internalize the idea that they’re lazy or not trying hard enough. They might experience teasing from peers or criticism from teachers or parents, all of which can have a negative impact on self-esteem and emotional health.
People with learning disorders may:
- have a negative self-image
- grow to dislike school or work and feel less motivated to make an effort
- feel lonely and have difficulty fitting in with their peers
- have difficulties with planning and organizing, which could affect relationships with peers and adults
However, getting the right support can go a long way toward minimizing these effects.
Accommodations and emotional support from teachers, parents, and friends can help people with learning disorders thrive at school, work, and in their relationships — not to mention improve well-being overall.
According to one
For many people, finding the most helpful accommodations and support begins with the correct diagnosis.
If you believe your child may have a learning disorder, a good first step involves connecting with their teacher. Teachers can usually offer more information about your child’s classroom performance and refer you to a school psychologist or another specialist for an assessment, if needed.
Alternatively, you can start by talking with a pediatrician or primary care doctor. Trained medical professionals can help rule out other health concerns that may affect learning. A doctor can also refer you to an educational or clinical psychologist who can provide an assessment, if you believe you have a learning disorder that didn’t get diagnosed earlier in life.
Options for support
Support for learning disorders might include
- occupational therapy
- psychotherapy, also called talk therapy
- special education
- extra lessons or tutoring
It could also help to:
- learn more about your specific learning disorder
- connect with others who have the same condition
- try finding a mentor or support group
- talk with loved ones who can offer emotional support
- ask a doctor or psychiatrist about treatment options for co-occurring conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression
Try what works for you
When it comes to schoolwork or job-related tasks, the same approach doesn’t work for everyone. So, don’t hesitate to explore and develop a unique approach to studying and work.
For example, you or your child might find an audio format easier to understand and process than written text. If studying frustrates you, you might find it helpful to take frequent breaks and explore strategies to make the process go a little more smoothly.
Accommodations for learning disabilities
If your child has a learning disorder diagnosis, they might be eligible for specialized educational and therapeutic services through your school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
IDEA specifies that schools must develop an individualized education plan (IEP) for eligible students with disabilities. You and your child’s teacher will work together to create this plan, which can then help your child get the services and support they need.
These accommodations aren’t limited to K-12 education. If you’re a college student, you still qualify for accommodations through your university.
Your school should have a disability services department or office with staff who can assist you in requesting the accommodations you need to succeed at school.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also protects the rights of children and adults with learning disorders. Under the ADA, employers need to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, which includes learning disorders.
Accommodations for learning disorders may include:
- alternate writing and editing software
- time management software
- instructions delivered verbally instead of in writing
- color-coded filing systems
- text-to-speech and speech-to-text software
- an office space with fewer distractions
- reassigning certain tasks
The accommodations you receive generally depend on your specific needs, though your employer’s budget can also factor in.
You can contact the Job Accommodation Network to get assistance with asking for accommodations.
Whether you have a child, partner, or sibling with a learning disorder, your support and compassion can go a long way. A good first step involves asking how you can best support them because they might have some specific ideas in mind.
You can also:
- Learn about their condition: A more thorough understanding of what their learning disorder involves can help you get a better idea of the challenges they face on a regular basis.
- Understand their rights: Learn about how acts such as the ADA and IDEA can offer assistance. This can help you advocate for them (or support them in advocating for themselves).
- Notice their efforts: Praise them for persevering through difficult tasks, even if the result isn’t what they hoped for.
- Recognize their strengths: Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Instead of focusing your energy on addressing challenges related to their learning disorder, aim to nurture and praise their talents. This can promote self-esteem, self-confidence, and their sense of personal identity.
- Offer emotional support: Work or school can sometimes feel frustrating and stressful for people with learning disorders. Listening and validating any challenges they share with you can make a difference.
Supporting a child includes recognizing when they might benefit from professional support.
You can also encourage adult loved ones to get professional help, from connecting with a therapist to finding a support group.
Learning disorders can make school, work, and day-to-day tasks more challenging. However, with the right assistance, people who have learning disorders can thrive both personally and professionally.
If you think you or your child may have a specific learning disorder, it’s worth asking a doctor or mental health professional about an assessment. A diagnosis can help you understand the condition and get the right type of support and accommodations for your unique needs.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.