Specific Learning Disorders

A learning disorder is an information-processing problem that prevents a person from learning a skill and using it effectively. Learning disorders generally affect people of average or above average intelligence. As a result, the disorder appears as a gap between expected skills, based on age and intelligence, and academic performance.
Early intervention is essential because the problem can snowball. A child who doesn’t learn to add in elementary school won’t be able to tackle algebra in high school. Children who have learning disorders can also experience performance anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, chronic fatigue or loss of motivation. Some children might act out to distract attention from their challenges at school.

What are the signs of learning disorders?

Your child might have a learning disorder if he or she:

  • Doesn’t master skills in reading, spelling, writing or math at or near expected age and grade levels
  • Has difficulty understanding and following instructions
  • Has trouble remembering what someone just told him or her
  • Lacks coordination in walking, sports or skills such as holding a pencil
  • Easily loses or misplaces homework, schoolbooks or other items
  • Has difficulty understanding the concept of time
  • Resists doing homework or activities that involve reading, writing or math, or consistently can’t complete homework assignments without significant help
  • Acts out or shows defiance, hostility or excessive emotional reactions at school or while doing academic activities, such as homework or reading


Learning disorders in reading are usually based on difficulty perceiving a spoken word as a combination of distinct sounds. This can make it hard to understand how a letter or letters represent a sound and how letter combinations make a word.

Problems with working memory — the ability to hold and manipulate information in the moment — also can play a role.

Even when basic reading skills are mastered, children may have difficulty with the following skills:

  • Reading at a typical pace
  • Understanding what they read
  • Recalling accurately what they read
  • Making inferences based on their reading
  • Spelling

A learning disorder in reading is usually called dyslexia, but some specialists may use the term to describe only some of the information-processing problems that can cause difficulty with reading.

Written expression

Writing requires complex visual, motor and information-processing skills. A learning disorder in written expression may cause the following:

  • Slow and labor-intensive handwriting
  • Handwriting that’s hard to read
  • Difficulty putting thoughts into writing
  • Written text that’s poorly organized or hard to understand
  • Trouble with spelling, grammar and punctuation


A learning disorder in math may cause problems with the following skills:

  • Understanding how numbers work and relate to each other
  • Calculating math problems
  • Memorizing basic calculations
  • Using math symbols
  • Understanding word problems
  • Organizing and recording information while solving a math problem

Nonverbal skills

A child with a learning disorder in nonverbal skills appears to develop good basic language skills and strong rote memorization skills early in childhood. Difficulties are present in visual-spatial skills, visual-motor skills, and other skills necessary in social or academic functioning.

A child with a learning disorder in nonverbal skills may have trouble with the following skills:

  • Interpreting facial expressions and nonverbal cues in social interactions
  • Using language appropriately in social situations
  • Physical coordination
  • Fine motor skills, such as writing
  • Attention, planning and organizing
  • Higher-level reading comprehension or written expression, usually appearing in later grade school