Learning Disorders. What you need to know

What are learning disabilities?

A learning disability is a persistent impairment of a skill that is important for your child’s academic progress. There are many skills that form the building blocks of your child’s academic development. A learning disorder impacts your ability to learn an important academic skill.This is includes skills related to the development of your child’s reading, writing and mathematical abilities. 

An interesting fact: Reading and writing was developed human technology. We invented it, and therefore people are not born with a natural ability to read or write. Reading and writing is therefore a skill we need to learn. Some people naturally struggle to learn a skill.

If you have a learning disorder, it means that some of the skills that help your academics, does not come naturally to you and you struggle to learn it despite all your effort. A learning disorder thus disrupts your norma  learning of academic skills. VERY importantly it is not because of a lack of learning or inadequate teaching!

The onset of a learning disorder usually happens during the school years, and can co-occur with other disorders, like ADHD and anxiety. Learning Disabilities according to the DSM-5 is categorised under a list of disorders, called Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Where do learning disorders come from?

According to DSM-5 there is a biological origin to specific learning disorders. The biological origins is combination of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors, that impact the brain’s ability to perceive or process verbal and non-verbal information. It is no-one’s fault if you have a learning disability. 

MRI scans have shown some difference in certain brain regions of a person diagnosed with a specific learning disorder. But currently most of the evidence of learning disorders are related to symptoms and behaviours.

When looking at learning disabilities, it is useful to look at when there is too much or too little of something. The acronym FIDC (Frequency, intensity, duration, context) can help you frame this. You are looking at the frequency, intensity, duration and the context of a behaviour. 

  • Frequency: How frequently does your child demonstrate too much or too little of a behaviour.
  • Intensity: How intensely do they experience the behaviour.
  • Duration: How long does the behaviour last or how long has it been happening.
  • Context: In what situation does the difficulties happen.

A learning disability will normally have too much of or too little of a necessary skill or behaviour across many situations. 

What are the different types of learning disorders?

The three specific learning disorders as categorised by the DSM-5 are

  • Specific Learning Disorders
    • Impairment of Reading: (difficulties with word reading accuracy, reading rate or fluency, reading comprehension)
    • Impairment of Writing: (difficulties with spelling accuracy, grammar, punctuation accuracy, clarity or organisation of written expression)
    • Impairment in Mathematics: (difficulties with number sense, memorisation of arithmetic facts, accurate or fluent calculations, accurate math reasoning.
Specific learning disorders falls under the umbrella of Neurodevelopmental disorders in the DSM-5. The other neurodevelopmental disorders according include:

  • Intellectual disabilities (Mild / Moderate / Severe / Profound)
  • Communication Disorders
    • Language Disorder
    • Speech Sound Disorder
    • Fluency Disorder
    • Social Communication Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
    • Combined
    • Inattentive
    • Impulsive / Hyperactive
  • Motor Disorders
    • Developmental Coordination Disorder
    • Stereotypic movement disorder
    • Tourette’s disorder

Often you’ll find that specific learning disorders overlap with other neurodevelopmental disorders or other mental disorders. 

What are the signs that someone has a learning disability?

Each disorder is identified in its own unique way. The process to diagnose any learning or mental disorder is a cautious and diligent process. There are however some common signs of learning disabilities:

  • “Acting out” in school or social situations
  • Clumsiness
  • Delayed speech
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Difficulty learning new words
  • Difficulty saying a word correctly out loud or expressing thoughts
  • Difficulty staying focused; being easily distracted
  • Difficulty with buttoning, zipping, and tying
  • Having a hard time listening
  • Impulsiveness, like acting without really thinking about the consequences (impulsiveness)
  • Poor grasp of a crayon or pen
  • Poor memory
  • Problems dealing with changes in schedule or situations
  • Problems paying attention or concentration
  • Problems reading and/or writing: Difficulty with learning the building blocks of reading and writing, like learning phonemes and the alphabet
  • Problems staying organised
  • Problems understanding words or concepts
  • Problems with math: difficulty learning numbers, days of the week, or colors and shapes
  • Problems with school performance from week to week or day to day
  • Pronunciation problems
  • Speaking like a younger child; using short, simple phrases; or leaving out words in sentences
  • Trouble following directions
  • Trouble telling time

How are learning disorders diagnosed?

Only a qualified professional can diagnose a learning disability in South Africa. Usually an educational psychologist can diagnose a learning disability. Other psychology professionals can also diagnose a learning disorder, like clinical and counselling psychologists.

In order to diagnose a learning disability you firstly look at how long the problem has persisted, despite various interventions or remediations. 

If you are a parent that feels your child might have a learning disability, keep record of their home work, report cards etc. Having a comprehensive record when going for an assessment helps a lot!

A comprehensive assessment process uses a variety of sources of information, to get a complete picture of your child’s abilities. This process is formalised in an educational psychological assessment.

To diagnose a learning disorder a variety of sources of information are used. These sources of information include:

  • Formal tests (IQ, scholastic, behavioural & emotional tests)
  • Informal tests (Qualitative and expressive assessments)
  • Interviews (Interviews with parents/guardians, teachers and other professionals)
  • Observations (Observations in class and/or in the assessment room)
  • History (Documents, home work, previous tests, developmental history)

Furthermore, in order to diagnose the disorder, any other disorders or causes need to be ruled out. This can include, visual or hearing difficulties.

What solutions and remedies are available for a learning disorder?

From my experience there there’s no such things as a silver bullet or a magical cure when it comes to learning disorders.

When working with learning disorder, as much effort needs to be put into the remediation as learning coping skills and equalising the barriers your child is facing.

When have a suspicion of a learning difficulty go for an educational psychological assessment. The earlier the better. 

Once a learning disorder has been diagnosed learn more about your child’s difficulties and advocate for them. Teach your child how to advocate for their own difficulties.

Make sure that the teacher and the school based support team knows how they can support your child.

Educate yourself about the most effective treatments but be careful of they hype. As a rule of thumb, any program that guarantees a fix or cure should be looked at with skepticism.

It’s very important for the school and the home to work together. Keep the communication channels open and make sure all of your child’s stakeholders are on the same page.

Don’t over emphasize the weakness of your child. Focus on the strengths as well. Generally speaking, it is easier to add behaviours than stopping behaviours. 

Don’t let the struggle define your relationship with your child. Often families become obsessed with their child’s academic difficulties, and it dominates their whole experience. This diminishes the joy of a family. Don’t let this steel your joy