What Is a Learning Disability?
Learning disabilities are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that can significantly hamper a person’s ability to learn new things. As a result, the person may have trouble with tasks such as speaking, reading, writing, paying attention, understanding information, remembering things, performing mathematical calculations, or coordinating movements.
Learning disabilities typically develop at a young age and are often diagnosed during the person’s school years, since the primary focus at school is learning. It is estimated that 8% to 10% of children below the age of 18 in the United States have some type of learning disability.
However, some people are not diagnosed until they attend college or get a job, and others never receive an official diagnosis, so they go through life without knowing why they have so much trouble with academics, work, relationships, and basic day-to-day tasks.
It’s important to understand that people with learning disabilities generally have average to superior intelligence and are often gifted in fields such as science, math, fine arts, and other creative mediums. The person is often bright and intelligent, but there may be a gap between their potential and the skills expected from a person of their age.
Nevertheless, some of the most accomplished and influential people in history have had learning disabilities, including Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Winston Churchill.
This article explores the types, causes, symptoms, and treatment of learning disabilities.
Types of Learning Disabilities
“Learning disability” is an umbrella term that encompasses many types of specific learning disorders, including:
- Dyslexia: Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, accounting for 80% of all learning disability cases. It is a language processing disorder characterized by difficulty with speaking, reading, writing, or understanding words. This can cause the person's vocabulary to develop at a slower pace and lead to issues with grammar, reading comprehension, and other language skills.
- Dysgraphia: People with dysgraphia may have difficulty putting their thoughts into writing due to issues with vocabulary, spelling, grammar, memory, and critical thinking. This condition is characterized by poor handwriting, as the person may struggle with letter spacing, spatial awareness, and motor planning. Dysgraphia can make it hard for the person to think and write simultaneously.
- Dyscalculia: Sometimes known as “math dyslexia,” this condition includes learning disorders related to mathematics, such as difficulty with numbers, concepts, and reasoning. People with dyscalculia may struggle to count money, read clocks and tell time, perform mental math calculations, identify number patterns, and apply mathematical formulae.
- Auditory processing disorder (APD): People with APD may have difficulty processing sounds because their brain misinterprets auditory information received by the ear.As a result, they may confuse the order of sounds in certain words, or they may not be able to distinguish between sounds such as the teacher’s voice and the background noise in the classroom.
- Language processing disorder (LPD): This is a subset of APD, characterized by difficulties with processing spoken language. The person may have difficulty attaching meaning to sound groups representing words, sentences, and stories.
- Nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD): NVLD is characterized by difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal signals.
- Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit: People with this condition may have difficulty with hand-eye coordination and motor activities. They may frequently lose their spot while reading, demonstrate unusual eye movements while reading or writing, confuse similar-looking letters, have difficulty navigating their environment, and struggle to manage items like pens, pencils, crayons, glue, and scissors.
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Symptoms of Learning Disabilities
These are some of the symptoms of learning disabilities:
- Poor memory
- Difficulty focusing
- Short attention span
- Difficulty with reading or writing
- Inability to distinguish between sounds, letters, or numbers
- Difficulty sounding out words
- Tendency to put numbers or letters in the wrong sequence
- Difficulty telling time
- Confusion between right and left
- Tendency to reverse letters
- Difficulty grasping certain words and concepts
- Disconnect between words and meaning (i.e.. saying one thing but meaning another)
- Difficulty expressing thoughts and emotions
- Poor hand-eye coordination
- Delayed speech development
- Trouble with listening and following instructions
- Inappropriate responses
- Restlessness and impulsiveness
- Tendency to act out
- Difficulty with discipline
- Resistance to change
- Inconsistent performance on a daily or weekly basis
While all children struggle with some of these things from time to time during their school years, people with learning disabilities tend to have a cluster of these symptoms that persist even as they get older.
According to the National Institute for Learning Development (NILD), frustration is a hallmark of this condition, since people with learning disabilities often excel at some things but do very poorly in other areas, and are often acutely aware of the gaps between what they can and cannot do.
The NILD notes that people with learning disabilities often find themselves failing in certain academic or professional areas due to reasons beyond their control, or having to put in tremendous amounts of effort in order to succeed. This experience can be difficult, confusing, and demotivating, often causing the person to feel sad and disappointed.
Causes of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are caused by differences in the neurological functioning of the person’s brain. These differences can occur before the person is born, during their birth, or in early childhood, and may be caused by factors such as:
- Maternal illness during pregnancy
- Birth complications that block the flow of oxygen to the baby’s brain
- Certain genes that can make the person more genetically predisposed to developing a learning disability
- Injury or illness, such as meningitis, in early childhood
- Health conditions such as cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome often involve some extent of learning disability
However, it’s important to note that learning disabilities should not be mistaken for learning problems that arise due to other factors such as:
- Visual, hearing, verbal, or motor handicaps
- Intellectual disability
- Emotional disturbances
- Economic, cultural, or environmental disadvantages
The Relationship Between ADHD and Learning Disabilities
Diagnosing Learning Disabilities
A healthcare professional can diagnose learning disabilities. The diagnostic process might involve:
- Academic testing: The healthcare provider may administer a standardized achievement test that checks the person’s reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, as well as an intelligence quotient (IQ) test. If the person performs well on the IQ test but has a lower score on the achievement test, it could indicate that they have a learning disability.
- Performance review: The healthcare provider may review and evaluate the person’s academic, professional, social, and developmental performance.
- Medical history: The healthcare provider will likely ask questions about the person’s personal and family medical history.
- Physical and neurological exam: The healthcare provider may conduct a physical and neurological exam to check for other health conditions such as brain diseases, mental health conditions, and developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Every learning disability has different symptoms and everyone’s experience of the condition is unique as they may experience differences in the frequency and intensity of their symptoms.
Some people may have a single, isolated learning difficulty that doesn’t have a severe impact on their day-to-day life; whereas others may have several learning disabilities that overlap with each other and make it difficult for them to function without support.
Treating Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are lifelong conditions that cannot be fixed or cured; however, with timely diagnosis, treatment, and support, people with learning disabilities can be successful at school, work, and among their community.
Treatment for learning disabilities may involve:
- Special education: Children with learning disabilities may benefit from education by specially trained teachers who perform a comprehensive evaluation of the child’s abilities and then help the child build on their strengths while compensating for their disabilities.
- Medication: Some people may need to take medication to improve their ability to focus and concentrate.
- Therapy: Psychotherapy can help people with learning disabilities deal with emotional issues and develop coping skills.
- Other interventions: People with learning disabilities may also benefit from other interventions such as speech and language therapy.
- Support groups: People with learning disabilities as well as parents of children with learning disabilities may benefit from support group meetings that help them connect with others who have similar experiences. Learning difficulties can often lead to tension, misunderstandings, and conflicts among the family, particularly among families where the condition is hereditary.
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A Word From Verywell
Every human being is equipped with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. All of us are able to do some things effortlessly but struggle in other areas.
It’s important to recognize that while people with learning disabilities have some challenges with learning, they are not in any way inferior to anyone else. Special education, treatment, support, kindness, and patience can help them achieve success.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Vidyadharan V, Tharayil HM. Learning disorder or learning disability: Time to rethink. Indian J Psychol Med. 2019;41(3):276-278. doi:10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_371_18
National Institute for Learning Development. What is a learning disability?
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Learning disabilities.
Learning Difficulties Association of America. Types of learning disabilities.
Walden University. 7 learning disabilities every psychology professional should study.
Kohli A, Sharma S, Padhy SK. Specific learning disabilities: Issues that remain unanswered. Indian J Psychol Med. 2018;40(5):399-405. doi:10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_86_18
Learning Difficulties Association of America. Symptoms of learning disabilities.
American Academy of Pediatricians. Diagnosing a learning disability.
National Health Service. Learning disabilities.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How are learning disabilities diagnosed?
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are some signs of learning disabilities?
By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.
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