What Is SLD?
An individual with a specific learning disability (SLD) has one or more impairments in basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language. The deficits manifest themselves as having an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. SLD encompasses a diverse group of disorders. Perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia also fall under this disability category.1
First adopted by the National Joint Committee in the United States for Learning Disabilities in 1981,
Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction.2
Specific learning disability is not the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, environmental, cultural differences, or economic disadvantage.
In 2019-2020, 14% of students in public schools received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), of which 33% were in the specific learning disabilities category.3
Specific Learning disability is different from generalized learning failure in that usually students with SLD have average or above-average intelligence.
While they struggle in some areas with learning, they also have many strengths.
“You cannot judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree.”
Those with a specific learning disability (SLD) will appreciate this saying more than anyone else.
As implied in the quote, it would be unfortunate if a student’s SLD leads to judgments about their general intellectual ability.
With the right support, individuals with SLD can achieve success at school.
Learning disorder vs learning disability
We often hear the terms disability and disorder used interchangeably, but what is the difference between the two?
The National Center for Learning Disabilities states that while the term “specific learning disorder” is used by the medical or healthcare systems, “disability” is more often used as a legal term.
It represents an important legal standpoint because it qualifies children at school age with such conditions to receive special education services under federal law.
Some people prefer to use the term learning difference, pointing out that these children simply learn in different ways from other children, and can be taught to overcome their limitations.
While this might be true, the term learning disability remains actively in use because of the legal implications.
Specific learning disability often co-occurs with other neurological disorders like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, and mood disorders.4
It is important to distinguish specific learning disabilities from other disorders like autism and intellectual disability.
Specific learning disabilities also cannot be explained by emotional disturbance or sensory difficulties, or an inadequate opportunity to receive education.5
3 Types of learning disabilities
Dyscalculia (Dyscalculia Dyslexia)
Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability that affects how people learn mathematical calculations.
Studies suggest that 5-6% of school-aged children have dyscalculia.6
The symptoms of dyscalculia in different children depend on how old they are.
For instance, kids in elementary school with dyscalculia may have trouble learning and retrieving basic arithmetic facts.
High school students, though, might have mastered math facts but cannot complete complex math problems with the lack of instruction.
The different manifestations of dyscalculia suggest that this disability might have multiple sub-components with signs and symptoms of their own.7
The treatment of dyscalculia, like that of other SLDs, requires special expertise.
Some effective strategies used in the treatment of dyscalculia include repeated practice and instructions conveying strategy rather than passive fact-based teaching.8
Dyslexia is characterized by reading difficulty, and like other types of specific learning disabilities, cannot be explained by factors like schooling, general intelligence, and motivation.
Dyslexia affects 15% of the student population resulting in 6.5 million children requiring special education in 2002.9
Traditionally dyslexia was viewed as a disorder related to faulty processing of the basic sounds that comprise language.10
However, recent research suggests that the core deficit causing difficulties in reading might be in the visual system, specifically the attentional component.11
Effective interventions for dyslexia target several aspects of basic reading skills, including understanding letter-sound correspondence, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency skills.12
The goal with these interventions is to get the individuals with dyslexia to develop the skills needed to read both words that they have encountered before and those they haven’t.
Encouragingly, studies have shown that using evidence-based interventions can help to improve and even prevent reading difficulties in younger children.13
Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability in which a person has writing skills below that expected for their age and/or cognitive ability.
Dysgraphia might occur on its own or with other learning disabilities.14
Prompt identification and diagnosis of dysgraphia can help with the management of the condition.
In addition to having difficulties understanding the meaning of words, individuals with this disorder also have trouble decoding the difference between sentences that have the same words but in a different sequence, such as “my child hugs my friend” and “my friend hugs my child”.
Specific learning disability causes
Specific learning disabilities are primarily brain-based disorders due to atypical brain development.15
Genetics plays a large role in neurodevelopmental disorders such as learning disabilities.16
SLD can also be acquired after birth due to traumatic brain injury17 caused by incidences such as car accidents or falls.
Special note about depression
Depression is not a cause of a specific learning disability.
However, the presence of depression can sometimes be mistaken as a specific learning problem.18
Signs of Specific Learning Disability
Reading the signs list of specific learning disabilities can be confusing to parents of children who exhibit some symptoms because all children show some of these signs at some stage of their schooling or the other.
For an individual to be diagnosed as having a specific learning disability, they must show a cluster of symptoms that do not disappear with time.
Some of the most frequently encountered symptoms include19
- attention issues
- poor reading or writing skills
- difficulty following directions
- Trouble in telling time
Specific learning disabilities come with many social and behavioral challenges aside from the learning difficulties inherent to the disability.
For instance, students with a learning disability might feel out of place at school, making them more likely to skip classes.
They might also engage in negative behavior at school, like acting out when asked a question that is difficult for them to answer.
Students with SLD are also more likely to be bullied at school.20
Taken together, all these difficulties at school make students with SLD much more likely to drop out of school than children without disabilities.21
Specific learning disability treatment
While there might not be a cure for specific learning disabilities, early identification and diagnosis can help children cope.
If a scientific, research-based intervention is provided early, the likelihood of success in school can increase.22
The core approach to treating SLD involves a comprehensive evaluation of the student’s strengths and weaknesses.
Then teach them how to use their strengths to overcome their weak areas.23
In some cases, speech and language therapy can help, as can medication that can enhance attention levels.
Also See: Very active toddler not talking
Final thoughts on Specific Learning Disability
People with a specific learning disability often report feeling “less than” at school due to their challenges.
Identifying the signs and addressing them early can be life-changing for children with special needs.24
With the right professional help, children with SLD can achieve high levels of success.
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- 2.Stage FK, Milne NV. Invisible Scholars: Students with Learning Disabilities. The Journal of Higher Education. Published online July 1996:426. doi:10.2307/2943806
- 3.National Center for Education Statistics . Students with Disabilities. NCES. Published 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgg
- 4.Margari L, Buttiglione M, Craig F, et al. Neuropsychopathological comorbidities in learning disorders. BMC Neurol. Published online December 2013. doi:10.1186/1471-2377-13-198
- 5.Lyon GR, Fletcher JM, Shaywitz SE, et al. Rethinking learning disabilities. In: Rethinking Special Education for a New Century. .; 2001:259-287.
- 6.Shalev RS. Developmental Dyscalculia. J Child Neurol. Published online October 2004:765-771. doi:10.1177/08830738040190100601
- 7.Temple CM. The cognitive neuropsychology of the developmental dyscalculias. Cahiers de Psychologie Cognitive/Current Psychology of Cognition. Published online 1994.
- 8.Kaufmann L, Aster M von. The Diagnosis and Management of Dyscalculia. Deutsches Ärzteblatt international. Published online November 9, 2012. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2012.0767
- 9.THORNTON K. Electroencephalogram biofeedback for reading disability and traumatic brain injury. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Published online January 2005:137-162. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2004.07.001
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- 12.Shaywitz SE, Gruen JR, Shaywitz BA. Management of Dyslexia, Its Rationale, and Underlying Neurobiology. Pediatric Clinics of North America. Published online June 2007:609-623. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2007.02.013
- 13.Foorman BR, Breier JI, Fletcher JM. Interventions Aimed at Improving Reading Success: An Evidence-Based Approach. Developmental Neuropsychology. Published online December 2003:613-639. doi:10.1080/87565641.2003.9651913
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- 15.Gilger JW, Kaplan BJ. Atypical Brain Development: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Developmental Learning Disabilities. Developmental Neuropsychology. Published online October 2001:465-481. doi:10.1207/s15326942dn2002_2
- 16.Pennington BF. Genetics of Learning Disabilities. J Child Neurol. Published online January 1995:S69-S77. doi:10.1177/08830738950100s114
- 17.Hammill DD, Leigh JE, McNutt G, Larsen SC. A New Definition of Learning Disabilities. J Learn Disabil. Published online February 1987:109-113. doi:10.1177/002221948702000207
- 18.Colbert P, Newman B, Ney P, Young J. Learning Disabilities as a Symptom of Depression in Children. J Learn Disabil. Published online June 1982:333-336. doi:10.1177/002221948201500605
- 19.Handler SM, Fierson WM. Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision. Pediatrics. Published online March 1, 2011:e818-e856. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-3670
- 20.Rose CA, Gage NA. Exploring the Involvement of Bullying among Students with Disabilities over Time. Exceptional Children. 2017;83(3):298-314. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1146378
- 21... Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (ED), 2015. In: 37th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. ERIC Clearinghouse; 2015:.
- 22.Wasik BA, Slavin RE. Preventing Early Reading Failure with One-to-One Tutoring: A Review of Five Programs. Reading Research Quarterly. Published online April 1993:178. doi:10.2307/747888
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