Specific Learning Disorder Basics

Specific learning disorder is a relatively new classification that groups together reading-related (dyslexia) and math-related (dyscalculia) disorders under a single umbrella. When a child is diagnosed with specific learning disorder, the particular areas of impairment are described as part of the diagnosis.

Specific Learning Disorder: What Is It?

A specific learning disorder can affect a child’s ability to acquire and apply reading, writing, and math skills. A learning disorder is distinct from intellectual development disorder; children with learning disorders usually have at least average intelligence but are still not able to acquire academic skills expected for their age, intellectual ability, experience, and education. A child may have impairment in decoding words, understanding the meaning of what is read, spelling, expressing himself in writing, doing calculations, and mastering mathematical reasoning. Specific learning disorder is a relatively new classification that groups together reading-related (dyslexia) and math-related (dyscalculia) disorders under a single umbrella. But when a child is diagnosed with specific learning disorder, the particular areas of impairment must also be designated in the diagnostic statement.

Specific Learning Disorder: What to Look For

Signs of a learning disorder usually become apparent when a child begins preschool or elementary school and encounters difficulties with one or more of the core areas of learning—reading, writing and math. Early signs that a child might have a learning disorder that relates to language are difficulties making rhymes, associating sounds with symbols, and sequencing together sounds in the correct order. Late talking and persistent trouble with word retrieval can also indicate the disorder, as can difficulty following directions, difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words and confusion with language patterns.

Signs that a child may have a learning disorder that relates to math include trouble with calculation and difficulty with math reasoning—solving problems. A child with the disorder might confuse basic symbols such as “+” and “-” and make simple computational errors. A math problem might be off by a single digit or the place value might be incorrect. For some children with specific learning disorder, learning a new concept while following a lesson in a classroom might be easy but reproducing and applying new knowledge at home might prove frustratingly difficult.

Specific Learning Disorder: Risk Factors

Specific learning disorder clusters in families; a child with a first-degree relative with a learning disorder in reading or mathematics is at significantly higher risk of developing one. Specific learning disorder is not caused by a lack of intelligence.

Specific Learning Disorder: Diagnosis

There are several kinds of evaluations that examine how a child processes information, including educational evaluations (which assess reading, writing, math, and spelling ability) and neuropsychological evaluations (which develop a wide profile of a child’s skills and abilities in reasoning, learning, memory, visual and auditory processing, listening comprehension, verbal expression, executive functioning skills, and academic abilities). If a student is suspected of having a learning disorder, the school is legally required to provide an evaluation according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). You can also get a private evaluation from outside the school.

Specific Learning Disorder: Treatment

While there is no cure for specific learning disorder, there are many ways to improve reading, writing, and math skills for a child. Treatment usually includes both strengthening the skills and developing a learning strategy tailored to take advantage of a child’s strengths. For example, repetition and mnemonic devices might make it easier to memorize a math formula, and drawing a picture to illustrate a word problem might help a child visualize what is being asked. Treatment for specific learning disorder often also involves multimodal teaching. If a child has trouble comprehending a subject with his or her eyes and ears alone, other senses such as touch, taste, and even smell can play a role in the learning process. Similarly, learning to convert one sort of problem into another format may help (e.g. changing a traditional math problem into a word problem). A learning specialist can help determine the services or accommodations a child might benefit from at school. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy in particular, may also be helpful in treating the emotional and behavioral problems that can accompany specific learning disorder.

Specific Learning Disorder: Risk For Other Disorders

Sensory problems associated with vision and hearing can look like a specific learning disorder. Similarly, untreated anxiety disorders and ADHD can look like learning deficit. In addition, if untreated specific learning disorder can be so frustrating for a child that it causes him to have mood and behavior problems that can be mistaken for anxiety, depression, opposition defiant disorder, or ADHD.