Diagnosing a Learning Disability

A learning disability is defined as “a childhood disorder characterized by difficulty with certain skills such as reading or writing in individuals with normal intelligence.” A grade school child is considered to have a learning disability if there is at least a two-year gap between where a child is and where he should be.

Learning disabilities typically show up as a developmental issue in either verbal/writing skills or mathematical skills, while learning in other areas progress normally. There are five different areas that can be affected by learning disabilities:

  1. Spoken language: delays, disorders, and deviations in listening and speaking.
  2. Written language: difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.
  3. Arithmetic: difficulty in performing arithmetic operations or in understanding basic concepts.
  4. Reasoning: difficulty in organizing and integrating thoughts.
  5. Memory: difficulty in remembering information and instructions.

Some symptoms that may indicate a learning disability include:

  • Poor short-term or long-term memory
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Difficulty discerning size, shape, and/or color
  • Difficulty understanding concepts of time
  • Being easily confused by instructions
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Difficulty with abstract reasoning and/or problem solving
  • Obsessive focus on one idea or topic

A parent who suspects their child has a learning disability should have the child tested. A school counselor or other faculty member should schedule the child’s tests. Should the school not acknowledge that there’s a problem, a parent is well within his or her rights to consult someone outside of the school system. Once the tests are concluded, parents can take the results back to the school and insist their child receives the help he needs.

There are other 13 categories of disability covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Excluding physical disabilities (affecting vision, hearing and motor function), the categories include specific learning disorders, autism spectrum disorders and emotional disturbance conditions. For now, let’s just call them all learning disabilities because regardless of their technical category, the fact remains that every one of these conditions causes problems with the learning process.

Additionally, children are often diagnosed with multiple challenges. According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 30 percent of children with learning disabilities also have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

A learning disability, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), most recently updated in 2006, is: “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.”

The more common learning disabilities, or learning disorders, are:


Dyslexia – a language-based learning disability in which a person has trouble understanding written words. It may also be referred to as reading disability or reading disorder.

Dyscalculia – a mathematical learning disability in which a person has a difficult time solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.

Dysgraphia – a writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space.

Auditory and Visual Processing Disorders – sensory disabilities in which a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision.

Nonverbal Learning Disability – a neurological disorder which originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, causing problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative and holistic processing functions.

Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) -problems with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination that are out of the normal range for the child’s age and development.

Conduct Disorder -a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior of violating the rights of others, or violating norms or rules; conduct is more serious than the ordinary mischief and pranks of children and adolescents.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – obsessions (recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive and cause severe anxiety or distress) and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviors and rituals, like hand washing or hoarding, or mental acts, like counting, and repeating words silently) which significantly interfere with normal routine, academic functioning, usual social activities or relationships.

Autism – a complex developmental disability usually diagnosed before the age of three identified by delays in verbal and non-verbal communication skills, troubled social interactions, and difficulties with leisure or play activities.

Different disabilities are tested in different ways. A language or speech disability should be tested by a speech therapist who will examine a child’s verbal skills, including grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary comprehension. The test results are compared to standard results to determine if there’s a significant gap. In addition, an audiologist will test for auditory problems; a psychologist will test intelligence, and a physician will likely test for ear problems like infections.

If the learning problem is academic, the child will take standardized tests that will evaluate his ability and current comprehension. Hearing and/or vision tests may also be administered to ensure that the child’s learning isn’t being hindered by an inability to hear or see properly. The people or person administering the test will also ask about the child’s school attendance and overall participation; either of which could severely impact a child’s academic performance.

Once a diagnosis has been made, it’s important to develop an education program that will help the child acquire and hone the skills he’ll need to move forward developmentally, in spite of the learning disability. Most schools are equipped to do this and will already have programs in place. If, however, over time, it seems the child is not getting the help he needs, parents may wish to consult an outside specialist – like a tutor who can give the child more focused attention.

Being diagnosed with a learning disability doesn’t mean a child will be limited in his academic (or other) achievements. Once a child is aware of his disability, he can begin learning how to work around it, and his achievements will only be limited by his own ambition and persistence.