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Understanding Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities are a group of disorders that affect an individual’s ability to comprehend and articulate written or spoken language, mathematical computations, movements, attention span and concentration. Learning disabilities can be neurobiological, they alter certain functions of the brain that affect the cognitive processes which aid learning. They inhibit the individual’s ability to process and retain information. Learning disabilities usually develop in childhood. Although when the difficulties of the individual experience right from primary school, the signs are noticeable, often due to the lack of knowledge and awareness, the difficulties are not recognized as disorders, and thus, there remains a prominent disparity between the expected skills from the child and how they actually perform as a result of not getting the appropriate teaching and evaluation methods.Often, children in school settings are pressurized for not being able to meet the academic expectations of their grade level like their peers, and a learning disability is mistaken for lack of motivation or efforts from the child’s side. Learning disabilities are not related to lack or absence of motivation or efforts in the child, nor are children with learning disabilities any less smart than their peers, there just exists a difference in the way they process and retain information. Due to the lack of understanding of learning disabilities, there is a gap between a child’s actual potential and their performance.
Many individuals continue to struggle with academics without realizing that the difficulties they are facing are a result of an underlying learning disability and without having received evaluation when these difficulties first start to surface, they continue to face problems in their workplace as adults. Learning disabilities should not be confused with problems that arise as a result of visual/hearing/motor disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or environmental factors such as emotional/physical/mental trauma.



Treatment for learning disabilities mainly includes provision of teaching-learning strategies that are tailored according to the individual’s abilities, one that enhances their strengths and actualizes their potential. It also focuses on skill strengthening in terms of reading, writing, comprehension, and mathematical skills (as required by the individual). The methods are devised in a way that works for the individual’s advantage and is appropriate to maximize their potential in a way that they are able to develop the same level of skills as their peers. Such teaching methods make use of multimodal techniques. They adopt repetition, mnemonic devices, inculcating different senses (like taste, touch,smell). A learning specialist works to determine and tailor methods of teaching that best suits a child and enables them to benefit from schooling. With apt and  proper learning and teaching, and evaluation methods learning disabilities are easily manageable and the child is able to meet the academic expectations according to their grade level.Many times, to cope with the emotional and behavioral problems that could co-occur from learning disability or arise from it, counselling and therapy is also recommended and even contributes to the individual’s holistic psychological well being. Overall, learning disabilities, with timely intervention are easily manageable and enables the individual to benefit from all levels of schooling and higher education. 

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DSM-5 Criteria

Following is the diagnostic criteria for Specific Learning Disorder as per DSM-5:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition , (DSM-5) describes specific learning disorder as a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by “ persistent and impairing difficulties with learning foundational academic skills in reading, writing and/or math”. An individual affected by a specific learning disorder may show below average performance in the academic area related to the affected skill, or acceptable level of performance with special efforts and provision of special education.

A. Difficulties learning and using academic skills, as indicated by the presence of at least one of the following symptoms that have persisted for at least 6 months, despite the provision of interventions that target those difficulties:

1.  Inaccurate or slow and effortful word reading (e.g., reads single words aloud incorrectly or slowly and hesitantly, frequently guesses words, has difficulty sounding out words).

2. Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read (e.g., may read text accurately but not understand the sequence, relationships, inferences, or deeper meanings of what is read). 

3. Difficulties with spelling (e.g., may add, omit, or substitute vowels or consonants).

4.  Difficulties with written expression (e.g., makes multiple grammatical or punctuation errors within sentences; employs poor paragraph organization; written expression of ideas lacks clarity). 

5. Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts, or calculation (e.g., has poor understanding of numbers, their magnitude, and relationships; counts on fingers to add single-digit numbers instead of recalling the math fact as peers do; gets lost in the midst of arithmetic computation and may switch procedures). 

6. Difficulties with mathematical reasoning (e.g., has severe difficulty  applying mathematical concepts, facts, or procedures to solve quantitative problems).

B.  The affected academic skills are substantially and quantifiably below those expected

for the individual’s chronological age, and cause significant interference with academic

or occupational performance, or with activities of daily living, as confirmed by individually administered standardized achievement measures and comprehensive clinical

assessment. For individuals age 17 years and older, a documented history of impairing

learning difficulties may be substituted for the standardized assessment.

C. The learning difficulties begin during school-age years but may not become fully manifest until the demands for those affected academic sills exceed the individual’s limited capacities (e.g., as in timed tests, reading or writing lengthy complex reports for a

tight deadline, excessively heavy academic loads).

D. The learning difficulties are not better accounted for by intellectual disabilities, uncorrected visual or auditory acuity, other mental or neurological disorders, psychosocial

adversity, lack of proficiency in the language of academic instruction, or inadequate academic instruction. 

The four diagnostic criteria are to be met based on a clinical synthesis of the individual’s history (developmental, medical, family, educational), school reports, and psychoeducational assessment. 

The DSM- 5 classifies the skill impairments that Specific Learning Disorder encompasses into three domains: 

1. Impairment in reading: also known as Dyslexia, it refers to a pattern of difficulties in accurate and fluent word recognition, and poor spelling, or jumbling up spellings. It consists difficulties in areas that are characterized by the following skillset:

  • Word reading accuracy

  • Reading speed and fluency 

  • Comprehension of the reading material

*note- Learning Disabilities and Specific Learning Disorder are not synonymous terms.*

2. Impairment in written expression: This disorder is related to problems in expressing thoughts, ideas and feelings in written language. An individual could have impairment in written expression when their writing ability falls below the expected level based on their age and educational background. This disorder is characterized by difficulties in the following skills: 

  • Grammar and punctuation accuracy

  • Spelling accuracy 

  • Clarity of written expression 

3. Impairment in mathematics: Also known as Dyscalculia, this term is used to describe  a  pattern of difficulties in processing numerical information, learning arithmetic concepts, and performing accurate calculations fluently. This disorder is characterized by difficulties in the domain that relates to the following skillset: 

  •  Number sense

  • Memorizing arithmetic concepts

  • Accurate and fluent calculations

  • Accurate mathematical reasoning

Specific learning disorder can have long term effects on an individual’s life in terms of academic skills attainment and postsecondary education and overall psychological well-being. Often they also co-occur with other neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and communication disorder thus it becomes important to


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