What are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities refer to difficulties in learning and using skills due to disturbances in neurological functioning. Typically, the most affected skill areas include reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning, and math.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, defines learning disabilities as:

". . . a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia."

Learning disorders are as common as 1 in 5 individuals, and approximately 3 million children currently suffer some form of learning disability.

Signs and Types of Learning Disabilities:

Learning disabilities do not always manifest in the same way for everyone, particularly because there are so many types of learning disabilities; however, there are some warning signs of which to be aware. Symptoms of a learning disability may include:

  • Difficulty learning the alphabet, rhyming words, letter sounds

  • Difficulty reading aloud, frequent mistakes, pauses

  • Difficulty understanding the content of what is read

  • Spelling issues

  • Messy handwriting

  • Late language development

  • Limited vocabulary

  • Difficulty with math problems and numbers

  • Attention deficits

The above symptoms may signify that the individual has a learning disability. Some of the more common learning disabilities are:

  • Dyslexia

  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)

  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD)

  • Dyscalculia

  • Dysgraphia

  • Speech and language disorders

Certain medical and psychological disorders may contribute difficulties in learning, including:

The National Institute of Health provides some case studies demonstrating the variety of learning disabilities.

Susan: At age 14, Susan still tends to be quiet. Ever since she was a child, she was so withdrawn that people sometimes forgot she was there. She seemed to drift in to a world of her own. When she did talk, she often called objects by the wrong names. She had few friends and mostly played with dolls or her little sister. In school, Susan hated reading and math because none of the letters, numbers or “+” and “-“ signs made any sense. She felt awful about herself. She’d been told – and was convinced – that she was retarded.

Wallace: Wallace has lived 46 years, and still has trouble understanding what people say. Even as a boy, many words sounded alike. His father patiently said things over and over. But whenever his mother was drunk, she flew into a rage and spanked him for not listening. Wallace’s speech also came out funny. He had such problems saying words in school his teacher sometimes couldn’t understand him. When classmates called him a “dummy,” his fists just seemed to take over.

Dennis: Dennis is 23 years old and still seems to have too much energy. But he had always been an overactive boy, sometimes jumping on the sofa for hours until he collapsed with exhaustion. In grade school, he never sat still. He interrupted lessons. But he was a friendly, well-meaning kid, so adults didn’t get too angry. His academic problems became evident in third grade, when his teacher realized that Dennis could only recognize a few words and wrote like a first grader. She recommended that Dennis repeat third grade, to give him time to “catch up.” After another full year, his behavior was still out of control and his reading and writing had not improved.

Obtaining a Diagnosis for a Learning Disability:

Early diagnosis of learning disabilities is vital to best management of treatment. Learning disabilities are often diagnosed in elementary school, as this is when children are often first exposed to content they are unable or have difficulty understanding. Teachers and parents together may observe difficulty in reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, and reasoning. The child often does not perform as well as expected in class.

If symptoms of a learning disability are present and causing academic problems, diagnostic tests can be administered at school by special education evaluators or in private practice by a licensed psychologist. Due to the variation in diagnostic criteria used for each type of institution, results can vary and are up to the discretion of the evaluator.

Treatment for Learning Disabilities:

There is no "cure" for learning disabilities due to unresolvable neurological issues. Many learning disabilities are lifelong conditions, and in some cases, several types of deficit may be present.

Special education in school is the most common treatment, as specially trained teachers are able to assess and work with learning disabilities. Education focuses on teaching concrete skills by building upon existing strengths and interests.

For language-related disabilities, a speech therapist or pathologist may become involved on an extra-curricular basis to assist in teaching and practicing language skills. Psychotherapy and medication may also be utilized.

Many learning aids such as recorded and/or highlighted texts or hand held recorders are available for students with certain types of comprehension disabilities.

Impacts of Learning Disabilities:

Children with learning disabilities may suffer a variety of impacts as a result of their disability. They include:

These effects may further impact a child’s ability to learn and overcome some of the barriers already present from the learning disability.

Tips for Supporting Those With Learning Disabilities:

Parents and teachers have several options for assisting a child with a learning disability:

  • Praise your child when they do well

  • Explore different ways of learning using visual methods or learning games

  • Give your children chores to boost concrete skills and confidence

  • Prioritize homework

  • Monitor your child’s mental health

  • Establish a relationship with your child’s school

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:


Down Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome

Pervasive Developmental Disorder

ADHD Resources

Special Needs Parenting Resources

How To Help A Parent With A Special Needs Child

Pediatric Caregivers Resources

Therapy Resources

Additional Resources for Learning Disabilities:

MedicineNet offers a comprehensive description of types, symptoms, and treatments for various learning disorders.

The KidsHealth website provides an article and case study about a teenager with a learning disability.

National Center for Learning Disabilities resource hub has a resource locator, as well as publications related to learning disability research.

CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder) is a great resource for learning disabilities related to ADHD.

The International Dyslexia Association is an advocacy group that promotes literacy.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) provides conference information, resources, and more in-depth information about learning disorders.