Specific Learning Disorder

What is it?

Specific learning disorder affects a child’s ability to acquire and apply the reading, writing, and math skills expected for their age, intellectual ability, experience, and education. Specific learning disorder is a relatively new classification that groups together reading-related (dyslexia) and math-related (dyscalculia) disorders under a single diagnosis.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of a learning disorder usually appear when a child starts preschool or elementary school and encounters difficulties in reading, writing or math. A child might have a learning disorder that relates to language if he has a hard time making rhymes, associating sounds with symbols, and putting together sounds in the correct order. Late talking, trouble with word retrieval, difficulty following directions, difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words and confusion with language pattern are also characteristics of the disorder.

For example, a child may have a math-related learning disorder if they have trouble solving math 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.

Diagnosis and Treatment

While there is no cure for specific learning disorder, there are many ways to improve a child’s reading, writing, and math skills. Treatment includes strengthening skills and developing a learning strategy tailored to 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 may involve multi-modal teaching. If a child has trouble comprehending a subject with his 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 determine the services or accommodations a child might benefit from at school. Cognitive behavior therapy may also be helpful in treating the emotional and behavioral problems that can accompany specific learning disorder.

What are the risk factors for children?

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 lack of intelligence.

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. If untreated, specific learning disorder can cause a child to have mood and behavior problems that can be mistaken for anxiety, depression, opposition defiant disorder, or ADHD.