What is Specific Learning Disability?

A specific learning disability is defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.” This disability category includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia (a type of language disorder). A 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 a specific learning disorder, the particular areas of impairment are described as part of the diagnosis. A learning disability affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate. This means they can have difficulty:

  • understanding new or complex information
  • learning new skills
  • coping independently

Other specific skills that may be impacted include the ability to put thoughts into written words, spelling, reading comprehension, math calculation and math problem-solving. Specific learning disorder is a medical term used for diagnosis. It is often referred to as “learning disorder.” “Learning disability” is a term used by both the educational and legal systems. Though learning disability is not exactly synonymous with a specific learning disorder, someone with a diagnosis of a specific learning disorder can expect to meet criteria for a learning disability and have the legal status of a federally recognized disability to qualify for accommodations and services in school. The term “learning difference” is a term that has gained popularity, especially when speaking with children about their difficulties, as it does not label them as “disordered.” Difficulties with these skills may cause problems in learning subjects such as history, math, science and social studies and may impact everyday activities.

Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) exist on a continuum from mild to moderate through to severe. There are common patterns of behaviour and ability, but there will be a range of different patterns of effects for each individual. The most common SpLDs are dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. An individual may have one of these independently or they can co-exist as part of a wider profile.

Learning disability can be a permanent disability.

Intelligence and specific Learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence. Many are gifted in math, science, fine arts, journalism, and other creative fields. A list of such people would include Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, and many others who have changed the course of our world. Students with learning disabilities experience an imbalance in their own ability levels. They are very good at some things, very poor at others, and feel the tension between what they can and cannot do. Frustration is a hallmark of a student with learning disabilities. Typically such students will either be failing in one or more academic areas or be expending excessive amounts of energy to succeed. Also, they are also highly inconsistent, able to do a task one day and unable the next.

Children with Specific Learning Disabilities

A child with a specific learning disability will appear to understand, have good ideas, and join in storytelling and other activities, as well as other children, and better than some. There are many different types of specific learning difficulty, but the best known is probably dyslexia. In dyslexia, the child has difficulty with spelling and reading. It may be difficult for parents and teachers to realize that a child has this sort of problem, especially if their development has progressed without concern in the early years. Sometimes it can take years for adults to realize that a child has a specific difficulty. A specific learning difficulty is not a mental illness. However, children with a specific learning difficulty are more likely to develop mental health problems, for example anxiety, or have additional developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), than other children.

Other Examples of Learning disorders for children are:

  • Dyslexia – difficulty with reading
  • Dyscalculia – difficulty with math
  • Dysgraphia – difficulty with writing

Specific Learning Disability Severity

A learning disability can be mild, moderate or severe. Some adults with a learning disability are able to live independently, while others need help with everyday tasks, such as washing and dressing, for their whole lives. It depends on the person’s abilities and the level of care and support they receive. Some people with a mild learning disability can talk easily and look after themselves but may need a bit longer than usual to learn new skills. Other people may not be able to communicate at all and have other disabilities as well.

Causes of a Specific Learning Disability

There are many reasons that can cause specific learning disabilities, such as:

  • illness, such as meningitis, or injury in early childhood
  • the unborn baby inheriting certain genes from its parents that make having a learning disability more likely – known as an inherited learning disability
  • the mother becoming ill in pregnancy
  • problems during the birth that stop enough oxygen getting to the brain

Factors that affect a fetus developing in the womb, such as alcohol or drug use, can put a child at higher risk for a learning problem or disability. Other factors in an infant’s environment may play a role, too. These can include poor nutrition or exposure to lead in water or in paint. 

What is a Learning Disability?

a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.

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About the author

Susan R.

Sue Rice is the Diversity and Inclusion Specialist and Researcher at Diversity for Social Impact. Sue brings over 15 years of HR and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consultation experience.
Sue's previous experience includes Microsoft, Target, and Kraft. Sue is also the manager of Diversity Leadership Directory