What Is Specific Learning Disability
An individual with a specific learning disability (SLD) has one or more impairments of basic psychological processes involved in language, spoken or written which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. It encompasses a diverse group of disorders. Perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia also fall under this disability category1.
First adopted by the National Joint Committee 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 disfunction2.
It is not the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
In 2019-2020, 14% of all public school students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in which 33% was in the specific learning disabilities category3.
Specific Learning disability is different from generalized learning failure in that children with specific learning disabilities usually have average or above-average intelligence. They have many areas of strength while struggling with other types of learning issues.
“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. Read on to learn more about specific learning disabilities, their different forms, and how caregivers can provide adequate support.
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 “learning disorder” is a term used by the medical or healthcare systems, “disability” is more of a legal term.
The term disability is important from a legal standpoint because it qualifies children to receive special education services.
Some people prefer to use the term learning difference, pointing out that these children simply learn differently 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 conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, and mood disorders4.
It is also important to distinguish specific learning disability from other disorders like autism and intellectual disability.
Also, specific learning disability cannot be explained by emotional disturbance or sensory difficulties, or an inadequate opportunity to receive education5.
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 dyscalculia6.
The symptoms of dyscalculia in different children depend on how old they are.
For instance, while first graders with dyscalculia show difficulties in learning and retrieving basic arithmetic facts, older students (9-10 years of age) might have mastered numerical facts but have trouble knowing the steps to follow to complete complex exercises in addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.
The different manifestations of dyscalculia suggest that this disability might have multiple sub-components with signs and symptoms of their own7.
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 teaching8.
Dyslexia is characterized by reading difficulty, and like other types of specific learning disability, 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 20029.
Traditionally dyslexia was viewed as a disorder related to faulty processing of the basic sounds that comprise language10. However, recent research suggests that the core deficit causing difficulties in reading might be in the visual system, specifically the attentional component11.
Effective interventions for dyslexia target several aspects of basic reading skill, including understanding letter-sound correspondence, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency skills12.
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 children13.
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 disabilities14.
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 development15. Genetics plays a large role in neurodevelopmental disorders such as learning disabilities16.
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 specific learning disability. However, the presence of depression can sometimes be mistaken as a specific learning problem18.
Signs of Specific Learning Disability
Reading the signs and symptoms list of specific learning disabilities can be confusing to parents 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 school20. Taken together, all these difficulties at school make students with SLD much more likely to drop out of school than children without disabilities21.
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 increase22.
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 areas23. In some cases, speech and language therapy can help, as can medication that can enhance attention levels.
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 needs24. With the right professional help, children with SLD can achieve high levels of success.
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- 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
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