Learning disorders may affect how you learn, not if you can learn. They’re not linked to your intelligence or your will to perform a task.
Both children and adults can live with a learning disorder, although they may manifest in different ways.
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 children in the United States has a learning or attention disorder. These conditions usually develop during childhood, but they’re often left unidentified or untreated until adulthood.
In either case, symptoms of learning disorders can be managed with the help of a trained professional. Progress is usually achieved when you work with it, not against it.
A learning disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts how you perceive and process information. It could make learning a skill very challenging. It affects the way you learn, but not your overall capacity to learn.
There are many types of learning disorders, and symptoms can sometimes overlap. You could also live with more than one disorder simultaneously.
Learning disorders typically manifest as persistent challenges, of various severity levels, in three learning areas:
These disorders can also affect different aspects of development, like speaking, attention, and movement.
In children, learning challenges usually show up as below-average academic performance for their group age. If performance reaches average, it’s only after extensive and determined effort and support.
In adults, learning disorders show as persistent difficulty in completing tasks related to reading, writing, and math.
An extensive and comprehensive evaluation is required to diagnose a learning disorder. It usually happens after the person starts formal education, but a learning disorder can be diagnosed at any time during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.
A trained health professional will usually take different aspects into consideration before making a diagnosis. These may include:
- when symptoms began
- how long they have lasted
- how much they impact your daily life and activities, including your performance at work or at school
A diagnosis is usually reached if learning difficulties persist for at least 6 months, even after receiving additional support at home or school.
“Specific learning disorder” is the formal clinical diagnosis professionals use. It’s based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.).
“Learning disability” is the terminology used in both schools and the legal system to refer to learning disorders.
The terms may be used interchangeably. Using “learning disorders” or “learning differences” helps to reduce the stigma sometimes linked to the condition. However, the term “disability” is what currently allows children to access specific resources in school.
The DSM-5 combined four categories of learning disorders into one named specific learning disorder. These four categories, described separately in previous editions of the DSM, include:
- reading disorders
- mathematics disorders
- disorders of written expression
- learning disorder not otherwise specified
The DSM-5 officially recognizes specific learning disorder as a condition and includes these specifiers:
- with impairment in reading, also called dyslexia
- with impairment in written expression, sometimes called dysgraphia
- with impairment in mathematics, also named dyscalculia
These learning differences are sometimes accompanied by other developmental and motor conditions, such as:
- dyspraxia or developmental coordination disorder, also known as clumsy child syndrome
- stereotypic movement disorder
- perceptual disorders that affect audition and vision
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Learning disorder with impairment in reading
According to the DSM-5, dyslexia refers to specific difficulties in:
- reading words accurately
- reading fluently
- understanding what you read
- spelling correctly
- decoding words
If you have dyslexia, you may have trouble associating letters with their sounds, for example. You may also have a hard time identifying those sounds in words, or keeping pace while reading.
As many as 15% to 20% of the general population experience symptoms of this specific learning disorder. It is, in fact, one of the most common ones.
Symptoms of impairment in reading can appear as early as preschool and continue throughout childhood.
Some examples include experiencing difficulty when:
- matching letters to the sounds
- pronouncing common words
- remembering sequences (like the alphabet song)
- following multi-step instructions
- reading letters that look similar (like b and d, or p and q) or that sound similar (like b and p, or f and v)
- reading familiar words when there are no illustrations
- recalling or applying spelling rules
In teens and adults, dyslexia can also manifest as difficulty with:
- reading comprehension
- basic grammar and sentence structure
- reading fluently
- understanding idioms, puns, or other wordplays
- following instructions when you read them as opposed to when someone explains them to you
Learning disorder with impairment in math
Dyscalculia affects your ability to perform tasks involving math, for example balancing a checkbook or figuring out a tip at a restaurant.
Symptoms of dyscalculia in young children and children in grade school include:
- difficulty learning to count
- challenges when recognizing patterns, like smallest to largest or tallest to shortest
- not recognizing number symbols or connecting them with the amount they represent
For example, a child may have difficulty connecting “3” and “three” or understanding that “three” represents 3 cookies.
Symptoms of learning impairments in math in tweens, teenagers, and adults may include challenges in:
- comprehending basic math facts and concepts
- identifying basic math signs (like plus and minus signs) and using them correctly
- reading and interpreting charts or graphs
- applying math concepts to real life
- gauging spatial awareness
Learning disorder with impairment in written expression
Dysgraphia impacts your ability to:
- spell accurately
- use grammar and punctuation rules properly
- express ideas in a clear and organized way when writing
These challenges may affect both handwriting and typing abilities.
In some cases, challenges in written expression will also impact your ability to express ideas verbally.
In other instances, dysgraphia may present as challenges with motor skills or a larger motor skill disorder.
Symptoms of dysgraphia in all ages may include:
- difficulty forming letters
- challenges holding a writing tool properly
- trouble writing grammatically correct sentences
- skipping letters when writing a word
There are other conditions not technically considered learning disabilities that may impact learning.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that may impact your ability to learn new skills.
ADHD involves difficulty focusing, concentrating, or controlling impulsive behavior.
Dyspraxia is a disorder that affects muscle control and motor skills. This condition is known medically as
People with dyspraxia may have trouble both planning and executing movements. Roughly
Auditory processing disorder
It’s not a hearing problem in the traditional sense, but rather a disorder that affects how your brain interprets sound.
In some cases, auditory processing disorder is associated with dyslexia, and its symptoms are sometimes confused with ADHD.
Symptoms of auditory processing disorder may include:
- difficulty following conversations, both in the classroom and between individuals
- not remembering or not following spoken instructions
- trouble making out what people are saying in a noisy place
Visual processing disorder
It’s not a vision problem, so it won’t be fixed with glasses or contacts.
It can affect your spatial sense, causing you to bump into things.
Symptoms of visual processing disorder may include:
- difficulty distinguishing shapes, including letters that look similar (like b and d)
- trouble seeing specific information on a page or website
- poor coordination and spatial sense
- difficulty with time management because you cannot tell how much time has passed
All types of learning disorders can be managed with professional help.
Contrary to what 48% of parents may believe, however, you cannot grow out of a learning disorder on your own.
Seeking professional help can assist you in developing new skills that make coping easier. It can also lead you to improve specific challenges you may be facing.
A mental health professional can also help you work on the potential distress a learning disorder may cause you.
There are many ways to treat learning disorders. Some include:
- occupational therapy
- behavioral therapy
- special education
- academic support from specialized tutors
Learning disorders are usually referred to as learning disabilities in the school and legal systems.
They are neurodevelopmental conditions that make learning more difficult for some people.
Learning disorders are treatable, and progress can be achieved with the support of trained mental health and academic professionals.