Specific Learning Disability: Complete Guide

Uh…uh…I don’t know,” responds the child prompted to answer a question in class. Upon the first assumption, the kid caught off guard and unable to answer the teacher’s inquiries are simply goofing off or fooling around. However, that is far from the case for someone with a specific learning disability. Reading, writing, arithmetic—the basic subjects taught in school do not always come easily in the presence of specific learning disability. Find out what is a specific learning disability, symptoms, treatment and how determining the type of specific learning disability is the key to success.

Specific Learning Disability
Specific Learning Disability

What Is a Specific Learning Disability?

A specific learning disability describes a group of neurological processing disorders. Such disorders are life-long. They impact learning and are infamous for impairing academic skills. The subjects of math, reading, and writing are most often affected. Depending on the specific learning disability, other aspects of cognitive function suffer. This includes executive functions: attention, long or short term memory, working memory, planning, organization, and even reasoning. As a result, problems listening, thinking, and speaking are additional manifestations.

It is important to note that children and adults diagnosed with a specific learning disability are in no way unintelligent. The stigma attached to learning disabilities is unwarranted because many with learning disabilities are of average intelligence.

Who Has a Specific Learning Disability?

Demographics reflect that there are risk factors for specific learning disabilities. Males are more likely to be diagnosed than females. Frequency increases with age. The older the student, the longer a specific learning disability has to become obvious. Public trends show that “12 percent of children living in families below the federal poverty line were identified as having a learning disability, compared with six percent of other children” (“Child Trends,” 2014). Despite the socioeconomic influence, 2013 trends do not prove racial and ethnic differences.

Specific Learning Disability Causes 

Approximately 47 percent of students in the United States receive services for a specific learning disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While specific learning disabilities are high-incidence, the underlying causes are not entirely understood. Experts like Sheldon Horowitz, Ed.D have contributed some possibilities:

  • Genetics—Specific learning disabilities are often seen within families.
  • Illness before or during birth—Premature labor, delayed birth, low birth weight, or a lack of oxygen all have effects on the brain that impact a child’s learning.
  • Exposure to drugs and alcohol in-utero—Both alcohol and drugs harm a developing fetus, interfering with brain development.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)There is an association between specific learning disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. Being hit in the head or shaken to cause trauma can potentially damage areas in the brain to alter cognitive processing.
  • Starvation—Certain nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain development and brain function (Gómez-Pinilla, 2008). Deprivation of these nutrients prevents the brain from functioning at its highest level. In some cases, like with B12 deficiency, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies lead to permanent neurological damage.
  • Toxic substances—Lead, mercury, endocrine disruptors, and pesticides are toxic substances connected with numerous accounts of specific learning disabilities.

Characteristics of a Specific Learning Disability

There are numerous types of specific learning disabilities. Regardless of the diagnosis, they typically share a common set of characteristics indicative of their disability.

  • Academic problems—Although the symptoms of specific learning disabilities extend beyond an academic standpoint, academic problems are frequently the first sign of the condition.
  • Reading difficulties— Fluency, comprehension, and word analysis are skills related to reading, which is the number one academic skill affected by a specific learning disability. Specific learning disability delays reading milestones. Language difficulties—Language difficulties are in oral and written language.
  • Disorders of attentionAttention is an executive function characterized by focused awareness on an object or subject while excluding surrounding stimuli. Specific learning disabilities are prone to shorter attention spans. In combination with impulsivity and hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a comorbid diagnosis.
  • Behavioral problemsBehavioral problems from specific learning disabilities stem from the inability to follow instructions in a classroom setting and a short attention span, poor memory, and the need for movement (hyperactivity).
  • Poor motor abilities—Fine motor skills are a beginning sign of a specific learning disability. This impacts tasks involving hand-eye coordination (i.e. holding a pencil, handwriting, copying accurately).  
  • Psychological process deficits— Processing deficits are the psychological functions that aid in interpreting information. Visual and auditory perception are prevalent deficits in those with specific learning disabilities, meaning the process of attaching meaning to sound and sight is hindered. Without supportive resources, comprehension problems are a risk.
  • Decline in social skills—Those with specific learning disabilities might misunderstand jokes and sarcasm, incorrectly interpret non-verbal cues (i.e. gestures and facial expressions), and struggle to convey their emotions.

Specific Learning Disability: Auditory Processing Disorder

Auditory processing disorder is a hearing problem distinguished by the inability to differentiate the sounds that form words regardless of volume. It is classified as a specific learning disability because it interferes with how the brain recognizes sound. Affecting 5 percent of school-aged children, the main sign of auditory processing disorder is difficulty remembering verbally instructed tasks, but not non-verbal environmental sounds. Additional symptoms are confusion over figurative language, misspelling and mispronouncing words, confusing similar sounding words, and ignoring pertinent stimuli when already consumed in another activity.

Specific Learning Disability: Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability of language skills. Known as a language-based learning disorder, dyslexia interferes with both oral and written language. Processes that facilitate reading are extensively affected—fluency, comprehension, recall, writing, spelling, speech, and decoding (how speech sounds relate to letters and words). Symptoms of dyslexia are evident in school while learning to read in early childhood. Those with dyslexia read slowly, substitutes letters and words, cannot recall known words and sequential items, and struggles to visualize letters in words.

Specific Learning Disability: Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in math. The disorder impedes the process of understanding math concepts. Someone with dyscalculia has to work harder to master the mechanics of math. This includes identifying visual-spatial patterns of numbers and placing word sounds with its number symbol. They also have difficulty with working memory like retaining numbers to compute a math problem. Dyscalculia causes symptoms outside of academic situations such as when shopping, telling time and following directions.

Children diagnosed with dyscalculia rely on finger counting to solve math calculations. Skipping over numbers while counting, problems with fractions, and misunderstanding words that pertain to math (i.e. greater than and less than) are the initial manifestations.

Adults can have dyscalculia too. Signs for adults with dyscalculia progress to include grasping information on charts and number lines, confusion when measuring, and errors in counting money.

Specific Learning Disability: Language Processing Disorder

Language processing disorder is a type of auditory processing disorder. While auditory processing disorder effects all sound stimuli, language processing disorder applies only to language processing. Language processing disorder is essentially a communication barrier. Those with the diagnosis struggle to understand what others are saying and to express their thoughts clearly as they are speaking. Issues with word retrieval, like the tip of your tongue phenomena, is a hallmark sign of language processing disorder, followed by shyness, poor writing, difficulty labeling objects, and depression from the inability to convey feelings are common characteristics.

Specific Learning Disability: Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability affecting spatial motor skills. It mainly presents in the process of writing—handwriting, spelling, spatial planning, and spacing. Dysgraphia causes inconsistencies in spelling and shapes discrimination, omitting letters, illegible handwriting, and mixing cursive and print. The symptoms typically begin around the age one learns to hold a pencil. Incorrectly gripping writing utensils is of great discomfort for people with dysgraphia.

The frequency in which dysgraphia is diagnosed increases up to 20 percent of students as the requirements for writing go up with grade level. Children with dysgraphia might exhibit complications with fine motor tasks like tying their shoes or cutting food. However, milder cases are only noticed while writing.

Specific Learning Disability: Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

As the name suggests, visual motor deficit is a specific learning disability affecting visual processing. Visual processing occurs in the brain, but the sensory data is first perceived through the eyes. Those with a visual motor deficit cannot process all information from visual stimuli. This causes variations in writing, the inability to discern shapes, and inaccurate drawing and copying. Visual-motor deficit develops in children and adults. Holding the paper at strange angles, closing one eye, and misaligning letters are physical indicators of the disorder.

Specific Learning Disability: Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

A non-verbal learning disorder is a specific learning disability marked by the failure to process non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues are gestures and facial expressions significant to daily interactions and socialization. In those with non-verbal learning disabilities, verbal skills are strong, but motor, visual, and spatial skills are lacking. They are usually clumsy due to poor motor-coordination skills.

CAB Test/ Cognitive Test
General Cognitive Assessment Battery from CogniFit: Study brain function and complete a comprehensive online screening. Precisely evaluate a wide range of abilities and detect cognitive well-being (high-moderate-low). Identify strengths and weaknesses in the areas of memory, concentration/attention, executive functions, planning, and coordination.

Diagnosing Specific Learning Disabilities

A specific learning disability is diagnosed after formal education starts because the disorders cause poor academic performance. For most children, teachers observe the warning signs of the various learning disorders and notify the proper professionals to make the diagnosis. Psychologists have the credentials to diagnose specific learning disabilities if their patient meets all of the four strict diagnostic criteria:

  1. Difficulties with reading, spelling, writing, or math and number concepts longer than 6-months despite targeted help
  2. Academic skills fall below what is normal for the patient’s age range
  3. Symptoms originate around school-age
  4. A child or adult cannot be diagnosed if symptoms are attributable to other sources: intellectual disability, neurological condition, failure to attend school, sensory impairment, or hearing and vision issues
Specific Learning Disability
Specific Learning Disability Occurs in Children and Adults

Interventions for Specific Learning Disabilities

Whether it’s a teacher attempting to navigate the academic effects, the student with the disorder, or a parent seeking to provide an encouraging environment, specific learning disabilities are challenging on all levels. Do not give up hope. There are interventions to manage the signs and symptoms.

School Accommodations 

With academic performance so affected, school accommodations are crucial for success. Students with specific learning disabilities are eligible for a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). The IEP dictates what accommodations are appropriate for the individual, as needs vary depending on the exact diagnosis. Examples of possible school accommodations are:

  • Extended time—Processing stimuli is not done as quickly in someone with a specific learning disorder. They require additional time to read, calculate math equations, or for motor skills like writing.  
  • Frequent breaks—Many with specific learning disabilities have deficits in attention. Frequent breaks to stretch, eat a snack or use the bathroom overcome the inattention arising during lengthy tests.
  • Timing—Scheduling tests at certain times of the day might be more conducive.
  • Scribe—A scribe bypasses the motor skills of writing. The student verbally expresses what they wish the scribe to write on the paper.  
  • Large print—If visual information is affected, giving the student a copy of the materials is easier for them to see.
  • Designated reader—While students are encouraged to read themselves, a designated reader gives aids the student in reading for certain assignments.   
  • Private room—A private room for testing is ideal for those who are easily distracted and cannot focus with the presence of multiple stimuli.

Teaching Strategies 

Teachers have a paramount role in the education of a student with a specific learning disability. Implementing teaching strategies that aid in the easier processing of information is cornerstone to a student’s success in school.

  • Step by step teaching—Divide lessons into smaller steps to promote learning.  
  • Multi-sensory approach—The multi-sensory approach to learning utilizes visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways to expedite learning written language. Multi-sensory approaches are helpful for dyslexia.
  • Model—Teachers model the behavior and actions they desire from their students.
  • Use diagrams and pictures—Diagrams and pictures are another means of presenting data. If the student struggles with auditory information, accompanying that data with visuals enhance learning.
  • Create a quiet environment—It is tough for any student to focus with ongoing noise. That struggle is increased for those with learning disabilities whose brains are already in overdrive to process stimuli.
  • Provide outlines—Having chapter outlines in advance summarizes the information the student would otherwise have to read, process, and then comprehend.
  • Peer assistance—Some students with learning disabilities can flourish in social settings. Allowing peer assistances is a less confrontational manner to address learning problems.

Tips for Managing Your Child’s Specific Learning Disability 

Parents of children with a specific learning disability experience a range of emotions. From guilt to proactive determination, remember that your child’s learning disability is no fault of your own. While you may not be able to heal your child of their disability, you can implement these tips to manage their specific learning disability.  

  • Establish the child’s learning style—Visual, auditory, or kinesthetic are the types of learning styles.
  • Research—Keeping up on the latest research on specific learning disabilities expands knowledge on your child’s disorder and contributes to the possibility of offering new suggestions to your child’s team.
  • Focus on strengths—Children with specific learning disabilities can suffer from depression and low self-esteem. Focusing on your child’s strengths increased their self-worth while also conveying that their disorder does not define their entire person.
  • Listen—Between teachers, school counselors, and psychologists, there will be many perspectives on your child’s specific learning disability. Listen to each outlook so that your child has the best chance of success in life and in school.
  • Perseverance—There is no “right” way to manage a specific learning disability. Finding what interventions work for your child involves a persevering attitude. If one option is unsuccessful, do not give up.
  • Decrease stressEliminating all stressors in life is impossible, but reducing your child’s stress is beneficial to their mental and physical wellbeing. They are already dealing with an obstacle their peers are unfamiliar with, so limiting unnecessary stress is favorable to their education.


Child Trends Databank. (2014). Learning disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=learning-disabilities

Gómez-Pinilla F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 9(7), 568-78.

Mount Sinai Medical Center. (2012, April 25). Top ten toxic chemicals suspected to cause autism and learning disabilities. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 26, 2019

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