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What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities, or learning disorders, are an umbrella term for a wide variety of learning problems. A learning disability is not a problem with intelligence or motivation. Kids with learning disabilities aren’t lazy or dumb. In fact, most are just as smart as everyone else. Their brains are simply wired differently. This difference affects how they receive and process information.

Simply put, children and adults with learning disabilities see, hear, and understand things differently. This can lead to trouble with learning new information and skills, and putting them to use. The most common types of learning disabilities involve problems with reading, writing, math, reasoning, listening, and speaking.
Children with learning disabilities can, and do, succeed, the important thing to remember is that most kids with learning disabilities are just as smart as everyone else. They just need to be taught in ways that are tailored to their unique learning styles.

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities and disorders
It’s not always easy to identify learning disabilities. Because of the wide variations, there is no single symptom or profile that you can look to as proof of a problem. However, some warning signs are more common than others at different Learning disabilities look very different from one child to another. One child may struggle with reading and spelling, while another loves books but can’t understand math. Still another child may have difficulty understanding what others are saying or communicating out loud. The problems are very different, but they are all learning disorders.

The following checklist lists some common red flags for learning disabilites.

Preschool signs and symptoms of learning disabilities
• Problems pronouncing words
• Trouble finding the right word
• Difficulty rhyming
• Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, days of the week
• Difficulty following directions or learning routines
• Difficulty controlling crayons, pencils, and scissors or coloring within the lines
• Trouble with buttons, zippers, snaps, learning to tie shoes

Ages 5-9 signs and symptoms of learning disabilities
• Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
• Unable to blend sounds to make words
• Confuses basic words when reading
• Consistently misspells words and makes frequent reading errors
• Trouble learning basic math concepts
• Difficulty telling time and remembering sequences
• Slow to learn new skills

Ages 10-13 signs and symptoms of learning disabilities
• Difficulty with reading comprehension or math skills
• Trouble with open-ended test questions and word problems
• Dislikes reading and writing; avoids reading aloud
• Spells the same word differently in a single document
• Poor organizational skills (bedroom, homework, desk is messy and disorganized)
• Trouble following classroom discussions and expressing thoughts aloud

Problems with reading, writing, and math
Learning disabilities are often grouped by school-area skill set.

Learning disabilities in reading (dyslexia)
There are two types of learning disabilities in reading. Basic reading problems occur when there is difficulty understanding the relationship between sounds, letters and words. Reading comprehension problems occur when there is an inability to grasp the meaning of words, phrases, and paragraphs.

Signs of reading difficulty include problems with:
• letter and word recognition
• understanding words and ideas
• reading speed and fluency
• general vocabulary skills

Learning disabilities in math (dyscalculia)
Learning disabilities in math vary greatly depending on the child’s other strengths and weaknesses. A child’s ability to do math will be affected differently by a language learning disability, or a visual disorder or a difficulty with sequencing, memory or organization.

A child with a math–based learning disorder may struggle with memorization and organization of numbers, operation signs, and number “facts” (like 5+5=10 or 5x5=25). Children with math learning disorders might also have trouble with counting principles (such as counting by 2s or counting by 5s) or have difficulty telling time.

Learning disabilities in writing (dysgraphia)
Learning disabilities in writing can involve the physical act of writing or the mental activity of comprehending and synthesizing information. Basic writing disorder refers to physical difficulty forming words and letters. Expressive writing disability indicates a struggle to organize thoughts on paper.


Symptoms of a written language learning disability revolve around the act of writing. They include problems with:
• neatness and consistency of writing
• accurately copying letters and words
• spelling consistency
• writing organization and coherence

Other types of learning disabilities and disorders

Reading, writing, and math aren’t the only skills impacted by learning disorders. Other types of learning disabilities involve difficulties with motor skills (movement and coordination), understanding spoken language, distinguishing between sounds, and interpreting visual information.

Learning disabilities in motor skills (dyspraxia)
Motor difficulty refers to problems with movement and coordination whether it is with fine motor skills (cutting, writing) or gross motor skills (running, jumping). A motor disability is sometimes referred to as an “output” activity meaning that it relates to the output of information from the brain. In order to run, jump, write or cut something, the brain must be able to communicate with the necessary limbs to complete the action.


Signs that your child might have a motor coordination disability include problems with physical abilities that require hand-eye coordination, like holding a pencil or buttoning a shirt.

Learning disabilities in language (aphasia/dysphasia)
Language and communication learning disabilities involve the ability to understand or produce spoken language. Language is also considered an output activity because it requires organizing thoughts in the brain and calling upon the right words to verbally explain something or communicate with someone else.


Signs of a language-based learning disorder involve problems with verbal language skills, such as the ability to retell a story and the fluency of speech, as well as the ability to understand the meaning of words, parts of speech, directions, etc.

Auditory and visual processing problems: the importance of the ears and eyes
The eyes and the ears are the primary means of delivering information to the brain, a process sometimes called “input.” If either the eyes or the ears aren’t working properly, learning can suffer.

• Auditory processing disorder Professionals may refer to the ability to hear well as “auditory processing skills” or “receptive language.” The ability to hear things correctly greatly impacts the ability to read, write and spell. An inability to distinguish subtle differences in sound, or hearing sounds at the wrong speed make it difficult to sound out words and understand the basic concepts of reading and writing.

• Visual processing disorder Problems in visual perception include missing subtle differences in shapes, reversing letters or numbers, skipping words, skipping lines, misperceiving depth or distance, or having problems with eye–hand coordination. Professionals may refer to the work of the eyes as “visual processing.” Visual perception can affect gross and fine motor skills, reading comprehension, and math.



Common Types of Learning Disabilities
  Dyslexia   Difficulty reading Problems reading, writing, spelling, speaking
  Dyscalculia   Difficulty with math Problems doing math problems, understanding time, using money
  Dysgraphia   Difficulty with writing Problems with handwriting, spelling, organizing ideas
  Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder)   Difficulty with fine motor skills Problems with hand–eye coordination, balance, manual dexterity
  Dysphasia/Aphasia   Difficulty with language Problems understanding spoken language, poor reading comprehension
  Auditory Processing Disorder   Difficulty hearing differences between   sounds Problems with reading, comprehension, language
  Visual Processing Disorder   Difficulty interpreting visual information Problems with reading, math, maps, charts, symbols, pictures


Other disorders that make learning difficult

Difficulty in school doesn’t always stem from a learning disability. Anxiety, depression, stressful events, emotional trauma, and other conditions affecting concentration make learning more of a challenge. In addition, ADHD and autism sometimes co-occur or are confused with learning disabilities.

Diagnosis and testing for learning disabilities and disorders

As you’ve already learned, diagnosing a learning disability isn’t always easy. Don’t assume you know what your child’s problem is, even if the symptoms seem clear. It’s important to have your child tested and evaluated by a qualified professional.

The diagnosis and testing process for learning disabilities

Diagnosing a learning disability is a process. It involves testing, history taking, and observation by a trained specialist.

Integration, sequencing and abstraction: Technical terms for how the brain works

A professional learning disorders specialist might refer to the importance of “integration” to learning. Integration refers to the understanding of information that has been delivered to the brain, and it includes three steps: sequencing, which means putting information in the right order; abstraction, which is making sense of the information; and organization, which refers to the brains ability to use the information to form complete thoughts.

Getting help for children with learning disabilities

• Learn the specifics about your child’s learning disability. Read and learn about your child’s type of learning disability. Find out how the disability affects the learning process and what cognitive skills are involved. It’s easier to evaluate learning techniques if you understand how the learning disability affects your child.

• Research treatments, services, and new theories. Along with knowing about the type of learning disability your child has, educate yourself about the most effective treatment options available. This can help you advocate for your child at school and pursue treatment at home.

• Pursue treatment and services at home. Even if the school doesn’t have the resources to treat your child’s learning disability optimally, you can pursue these options on your own at home or with a therapist or tutor.

• Nurture your child’s strengths. Even though children with learning disabilities struggle in one area of learning, they may excel in another. Pay attention to your child’s interests and passions. Helping children with learning disorders develop their passions and strengths will probably help them with the areas of difficulty as well.