Learning Disabilities: Find out the signs

Those with learning disabilities describe the experience of their disorder with frustration, shame, anger, and even disappointment. Society casts an unfortunate stigma on learning disabilities, but the struggle to read, write, or perform arithmetic is very real. It can happen to anyone. Education is needed for accurate awareness and to learn the signs of learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, processing disorders, and dyspraxia.

learning disabilities
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What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a disorder in the psychological processes that generate the ability to learn. Someone with a learning disability can have normal or above normal intelligence levels, yet have difficulty reading, writing, or completing mathematics. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, these deficits affect auditory and visual perception (i.e. input), sequencing, abstraction, and organization (i.e. integration), memory, expressive language (i.e. output), and fine and gross motor skills. One in seven Americans is diagnosed with a learning disability. However, people of any gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status are susceptible to a disorder in learning.

Signs of a Learning Disability

The signs and symptoms of learning disabilities are most profound during the school years, as students are expected to demonstrate the very thinking processes involved in a number of learning disabilities. While teach type possesses unique characteristics, there are general signs that may prompt further evaluation.

  • Below age level in skills such as reading, spelling, writing, or math
  • Cannot discriminate between letters or sounds
  • Difficulty sounding out words
  • Reverses letters and/or numbers
  • Short attention span
  • Acting out in school or social situations with academic activities
  • Difficulty following written or verbal instructions
  • Lack of hand-eye coordination (i.e. holding a pencil incorrectly)
  • Poor memory or forgetfulness
  • Misplaces school assignments
  • Unable to complete homework without assistance
  • Delayed speech
  • Impulsive
  • Resists change
  • Poor comprehension of words and concepts

Causes of Learning Disabilities

Contrary to common assumptions, learning disabilities are NOT caused by a lack of intelligence, inadequate parenting, or educational opportunity. Instead, learning disabilities manifest from other reasons such as genetics. Having a family member with a learning disability increases the likelihood a child will develop the disorder. Children born prematurely, with low birth weight, or who had previous exposure to alcohol or drugs have a higher risk. Researchers have also linked physical trauma from a traumatic brain injury, exposure to environmental toxins, or serious infections of the nervous system to learning delays. Psychological trauma can contribute too. Abuse during childhood years has the potential to alter brain development, which leads to learning disabilities.

Types of Learning Disabilities

The term “learning disabilities” encompasses several disorders. They are categorized by the primary learning skills effected.


Dyslexia is a learning disability that impacts the areas of the brain responsible for processing spoken and written language. It is the most common language-based learning disability impacting word recognition, reading fluency, spelling, and writing due to the inability to recognize phonemes—the basic sounds of speech. Recognizing phonemes is necessary for decoding, as well as phonological awareness. Decoding is the process of pronouncing written words by distinguishing letter-sound relationships, while phonological awareness is the ability to recognize sounds in spoken language, which is why those with dyslexia reverse written letters and spoken words.


Dysgraphia is a learning disability affecting writing ability. Dysgraphia prevents the proper visualization of letters and trouble with executing the motor patterns of letters necessary for writing. Being unable to translate thoughts to paper, poor spelling, and illegible handwriting are the main signs. The handwriting of those with dysgraphia is typically carried out awkwardly, possessing irregular qualities like upper and lower case letters in various styles and shapes or inconsistent spacing between written words.


Dyscalculia is a learning disability in mathematics. People with dyscalculia do not understand numbers that arise in multiple areas: 

  • Verbal dyscalculia—difficulty understanding the concept of quantity that manifests while naming specific amounts (i.e. 5 cats, 6 apples, etc.)
  • Ideognostical dyscalculia—This type of dyscalculia interferes with one’s ability to understand mathematical concepts and relationships. 
  • Operational dyscalculia—Operational dyscalculia impedes the calculation process. People with operational dyscalculia understand the relationships between numbers, yet have difficulty manipulating them to successfully perform math problems.  
  • Graphical dyscalculia—Someone with graphical dyscalculia can understand math concepts, but cannot write mathematical symbols. This includes operational signs (+,-, <,>, etc.). 
  • Lexical dyscalculia—Lexical dyscalculia is similar to graphical dyscalculia. However, those with lexical dyscalculia struggles to read mathematical symbols. 
  • Practognostic dyscalculia—This type of dyscalculia affects the manipulation of mathematical objects like when comparing numbers (i.e. big versus small) and performing mathematical equations.  

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

In auditory processing disorder, the ears and the brain do not coordinate to recognize subtle differences in the sounds of words. Individuals with auditory processing disorder hear normally and their ability to hear word sounds is unaffected by the volume in which the words are spoken. An auditory processing disorder causes weaknesses in understanding the order of sounds (auditory sequencing), distinguishing between separate sounds (auditory discrimination), differentiating sounds from background noise (figure-to-ground discrimination), and the ability to remember speech (auditory memory). The condition is considered a learning disability because language and reading skills typically suffer. A quiet environment without distractions is key to coping.

Visual Processing Disorder and Visual Motor Deficit

Visual processing disorder, also called a visual motor deficit, affects the way the brain processes visual information. A visual processing disorder results in weaknesses in distinguishing objects (visual discrimination), discerning an object from its background (visual figure-ground discrimination), seeing the order of words or objects (visual sequencing), and coordinating movements (visual-motor processing). This results in many deficits in the the skills involved in learning. For example, someone with a visual processing disorder frequently cannot differentiate differences in the shapes of letters, so they do not recognize written words while reading, writing, and spelling.

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

Nonverbal learning disorder is a learning disability characterized by sufficient verbal skills, but inadequate social, motor, organization, and visual-spatial skills. Someone with nonverbal learning disorder relies on verbal communication to comprehend meaning because they are unable to interpret nonverbal communication like tone of voice or body language. They fail to pick up on the social cues in day-to-day interactions, which often causes misunderstandings with others. In school, they can struggle academically due to the failure to properly organize information in larger concepts outside of spoken language.

Conditions Related to Learning Disabilities

Individuals with learning disabilities are at a higher risk for developing other neurologically-based disorders. In other cases, learning disabilities present as a symptom of an underlying physical condition.

Learning Disabilities: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Experts claim 30 to 50 percent of those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a comorbid learning disability such as dyslexia. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder characterized by patterns of inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. While not classified as a true learning disability alone, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder creates learning challenges that are only compounded by an existing learning disability. Those with the disorder find it hard to concentrate on work and controlling hyperactivity is not conducive to learning in a classroom setting.

Learning Disabilities: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is another neurologically based developmental disorder that begins in early childhood and is associated with learning disabilities. Autism affects communication and behavior. Children and adults on the spectrum engage in repetitive behaviors, have limited interests, are sensitive to sensory stimuli, struggle to interpret language, and have difficulty expressing and reading the emotions. The American Psychiatric Association confirms that half of those with autism have a learning disability diagnosis mainly because it affects language skills when speaking and listening.

Learning Disabilities: Dyspraxia

Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder prevalent amongst those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is defined by a lack of muscle control that interferes with fine and gross motor skills, motor planning, and coordination. Because dyspraxia causes problems with movement and coordination, speech and language are also affected. Clumsiness, unclear speech, illegible handwriting, and difficulty with movements (i.e. tying shoes, teeth brushing, walking, throwing, catching, etc.) are common signs of dyspraxia.

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities

Professionals like school psychologists most often diagnose learning disabilities in early childhood. School psychologists are experts in both education and psychology and help parents and teachers come up with a management plan to navigate the child’s learning disability. Disorders affecting speech are further evaluated by a speech-language pathologist who assesses the following learning skills involved in organizing thought processes—reading, writing, comprehending directions, and manipulating word sounds.  

There are two main tests used in the diagnosis:

  • Intelligence Quotient (IQ) Test—measures intelligence in comparison to age and is expressed as a number. The average IQ score is 100.
  • Standardized Achievement Test—measures academic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.

IQ score will be average or above average in the presence of a learning disability, but that score will not reflect in academic achievement.

Learning Disabilities in Adulthood

Learning disabilities are lifelong. Although prevalent in childhood, those children eventually develop into adults and face new challenges as they navigate adulthood with a learning disability. Rather than school, their struggles tend to surface in the workplace if their job requires skills effected by their disability (reading, mathematics, organization, social skills). This contributes to low self-esteem, triggers the body’s stress response, and can even impact the quality of relationships. Adults with learning disabilities must exert additional effort to excel at work, but it is possible to exceed with appropriate interventions. Adult specific interventions for learning disabilities include being forthright if social cues are misinterpreted. For example, when unsure of the meaning of people’s words or behavior, state, “I am unclear on what you mean” or “Am I correct that you are saying ____?”

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Learning Disability Interventions: School 

Children and teens spend the majority of their time at school, so teachers and guidance counselors have an important responsibility when it comes to teaching students with learning disabilities. They are also the first person to recognize that a student is showing signs of a learning disability. To reach those students, they have to alter their teaching strategies while demonstrating patience and reassurance to ensure learning.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is integral to the management of learning disabilities. Computers, tablets, audio, or any device/tool that assists students in compensating for their learning deficits. What makes assistive technology so beneficial is that it focuses on the child’s strengths to surmount their weaknesses. For example, a child struggling to read may be a great listener. An audiobook is a form of assistive technology for reading challenges. 

Other examples of assistive technology are:

  • Graphic organizers
  • Word processors 
  • Proofreading programs
  • Screen readers
  • Talking calculators
  • Electronic math worksheets
  • Alternative keyboards
  • Spell-check
  • Word prediction programs 
  • Speech synthesizers 
  • Memory aids

Teaching Strategies

Teachers are required to accommodate learning disabilities in the classroom. However, instructors who are truly passionate go above and beyond simply allowing the student to use assistive devices or other aids. Basic strategies for teaching students with learning disabilities entail giving clear, regular feedback, providing diagrams to support verbal information, dividing learning tasks into multiple steps, and modeling desired behavior. 

These strategies can be tailored to the student depending on their specific weaknesses:

  • Provide instruction verbally and in writing
  • Have the student pre-read chapters
  • Give advanced notices of assignments
  • Allow the student to use a note taker
  • Use color-coded highlighters to organize information
  • Guide reading with index cards
  • Periodically apply “checkpoints” while reading to check for comprehension
  • Proctor tests in a separate room without distractions

Learning Disability Interventions: Home

Thriving despite a learning disability is possible. Support at home, especially during the formative childhood years, is helpful. The interventions require effort from family and friends outside of the school environment.  

Social Support

According to psychologists at Berkley (2019), children with learning disabilities are prone to low self-esteem from deficits in social skills and a lack of academic success when compared to their peers. Parents must assist children in reducing or avoiding the emotional repercussions of the child’s learning disability by providing social support. Surrounding the child with other children their own age teaches them how to conduct themselves in social situations like socially acceptable behaviors, being sensitive to the feelings of others, and practice interpreting spoken language. As relationships flourish, they maintain quality relationships and feel accepted by peers.

Early Literacy

Early literacy is building knowledge of reading and writing before the child actually learns those academic tasks. Families can support early literacy of children beginning at birth. Early literacy takes place over a series of interactions that aid in the development of language skills essential for reading and writing.

Studies (Bennett-Armistead, Duke, & Moses, 2005) show that play rich in language is important for development. Singing songs, sharing stories, writing or drawing, and reading with the child at home refines the skills impacted by their learning disability without the pressures of an academic setting.

Creative Play

Creative play consists of any activity that fosters the creative process. The creative process is critical for helping children express their emotions, cope with their struggles, and encourage mental development. While engaging in creative activities, children are exposed to new ideas and learn problem-solving—all of which are later practiced in the cognitive processes applied in academic skills.

Parents can begin encouraging creative play by providing creative opportunities based on the child’s interests. This is not limited to drawing. It includes playing a musical instrument, sports, photography, scrapbooking, and more.


Bennett-Armistead, V.S., Duke, N.K. & A.M. Moses (2005). Literacy and the Youngest Learner: Best Practices for Educators of Children Birth to 5. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Branstetter, R. (2019). How to Help Students with Learning Disabilities Focus on Their Strengths. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_help_students_with_learning_disabilities_focus_on_their_strengths

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