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What is specific learning disorder?

Specific learning disorder is a condition that causes children to have difficulty with reading, writing and/or math. If they have trouble with reading and writing, the disorder is called dyslexia. If they have trouble with math, it’s called dyscalculia. It’s not that kids with specific learning disorder aren’t smart. They struggle to learn specific skills that come more easily to other kids of their same age, intelligence, and education level.

Children with specific learning disorder may have trouble spelling, understanding what they read, writing out their thoughts, or doing math problems. When a child is diagnosed with specific learning disorder, the diagnosis will list the areas that the child struggles with.

What are the symptoms of specific learning disorder?

Learning disorders are often noticed for the first time when a child is in preschool or elementary school. Specific signs are different depending on what the child has trouble with.

Signs of dyslexia include:

  • Struggling to:
  • Rhyme
  • Match sounds with letters
  • Put sounds in the right order
  • Talking later than other children
  • Trouble remembering words
  • Having a hard time following directions
  • Leaving out little words (like the, and, but, in) or reading them twice
  • Having trouble sounding out words they don’t know

Signs of dyscalculia include:

  • Trouble doing math problems
  • Difficulty understanding the logic behind math problems
  • Confusing basic symbols such as “+” and “-”
  • Making many small mistakes in math problems, like being off by one

Some children with a learning disorder can use these skills when a teacher is guiding them, but then they have trouble when they are on their own.

How is specific learning disorder diagnosed?

There are a few different ways to diagnose a specific learning disorder. One option is an educational evaluation, which looks at the child’s academic skills. Another option is a neuropsychological evaluation, which looks more broadly at how the child thinks, learns and communicates.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools must provide a student with an evaluation if they might have a learning disorder. Parents can also get the child private testing outside the school.

How is specific learning disorder treated?

There is no cure for specific learning disorder, but there are many ways for kids with specific learning disorder to improve their skills. A learning specialist can help figure out what kind of support a child needs. 

Treatment usually involves both helping the child learn skills and making a learning plan based on the child’s strengths. For example, a child who has trouble with word problems in math might learn to draw pictures to understand the problem better. Learning with other senses than just sight and sound (like touch, taste or smell) can also help.

Sometimes, kids with specific learning disorder also have emotional or behavioral challenges. In those cases, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help as well.

Risk of getting the wrong diagnosis

Sometimes, other common conditions can look like specific learning disorder on the surface. These include sensory problems, anxiety and ADHD.

If a child has specific learning disorder but isn’t diagnosed or treated, they can become very frustrated. This might cause them to have mood or behavior problems. These issues can be confused with other conditions including anxiety, depression, oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD.