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Specific Learning Disorder

Specific learning disorder (often referred to as learning disorder or learning disability, see note on terminology) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins during school-age, although may not be recognized until adulthood. Learning disabilities refers to ongoing problems in one of three areas, reading, writing and math, which are foundational to one’s ability to learn.

An estimated 5 to 15 percent of school-age children struggle with a learning disability. An estimated 80 percent of those with learning disorders have reading disorder in particular (commonly referred to as dyslexia). One-third of people with learning disabilities are estimated to also have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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Specific Learning Disorder FAQ

Learning disorders are present when a significant difference exists between a student’s intelligence and her academic performance. The best way to determine the presence of a learning disorder is to have your child undergo academic testing. (Also be sure to rule out any problems with vision.) Your school district can arrange for testing but children must meet certain criteria. Some parents seek evaluation by psychologists or other educational specialists in the community. I would suggest that you pursue having academic testing to get a clear answer for your concerns.

Federal law mandates that students who have learning disabilities receive assistance in the public schools. Special services include extended time for tests and projects, which can benefit a student with a learning disability. Individual time with a teacher to help your son with learning in math is often added in school settings. Some schools will provide before and after school tutoring times as well. As a parent, you can help your son by staying in close communication with his teacher to see how he is making progress. You can check in daily with your son to hear his perceptions as to how he is learning. Many communities have tutoring programs in which your child can have additional learning opportunities during his summer break to strengthen his math skills. Get information about and take advantage of the resources in both your school system and your community to help your child.

The best way to get a clear understanding of your ability in reading as an adult is to have educational testing. A psychologist or educational diagnostician can provide an assessment and clarify whether you have a learning disability in reading. And yes, there are things you can do to improve your proficiency in reading. Having an understanding of the specific difficulties you may have in reading can assist your evaluator in giving you recommendations of ways in which you can improve your reading skills.

Meet with the academic team working with your son and get information about what they are observing. Your son may have other issues in addition to the learning disability. Many children with a learning disability also have some difficulties with attention and focus. If those difficulties are not addressed, your child will have a tougher time with making progress in his reading. There may be other factors at play as well. If your child is struggling with self-esteem issues because of his learning disability, he may not feel confident in learning. The more information you can get about other factors impacting your child’s ability to learn, the more you can help him. Community resources, such as tutoring centers, can play a helpful role as well. Having a comprehensive view of your son’s difficulties in learning will help you determine other assistance he may need.

Learning disabilities are determined when your child’s intelligence is greater than he is performing academically. A common presentation is your child having normal or high intelligence, but not performing at his current grade level in reading or math.

A “slow learner” describes a child who does not have a learning disability but learns more slowly than other children in his age group. A common presentation for a slow learner is a child whose intelligence is low average or slightly below average, but not so low as to be considered intellectually disabled. Children who are slow learners can benefit from repetition, tutoring, and help with development of study skills.

Children who have ADHD struggle with attention and impulsivity, and may also have hyperactivity. Some children with ADHD may struggle with attention and focus only, and treatment to improve their attention will result in a better ability to learn. Studies show that half of the children with learning disabilities may have ADHD. Learning disabilities are addressed with assistance in classroom modifications and development of study and coping skills. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is addressed with assessment for medication to improve attention and behavioral therapy to assist with coping techniques. Your child's physician or a child psychiatrist can assist in determining the factors impacting your child and assist in treatment.

Whenever a child has difficulties with communication, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) should be considered. Children with ASD will present with the following symptoms: deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors, and deficits in developing, understanding, and maintaining relationships) and two of four behavioral criteria (i.e., repetitive speech or motor movements, insistence on sameness, restricted interests, or unusual response to sensory input) from the DSM-V. Many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder may also have Specific Learning Disorders.

Whenever your child has academic difficulties it is important to determine the factors that are impacting your child. Once your child’s learning problems are defined, you can work with a treatment team to address them in a way that is helpful.

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Debra Atkisson, M.D.

Debra Atkisson, M.D.

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Benbrook, Texas
Reviewed Nov. 2020

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