Defining Learning Disorders
Specific learning disorder is a classification of disorders in which a person has difficulty learning in a typical manner within one of several domains. Often referred to as learning disabilities, learning disorders are characterized by inadequate development of specific academic, language, and speech skills. Types of learning disorders include difficulties in reading (dyslexia), mathematics (dyscalculia), and writing (dysgraphia).
Dyslexia, sometimes called reading disorder, is the most common learning disability; of all students with specific learning disabilities, 70%–80% have deficits in reading. The term "developmental dyslexia" is often used as a catch-all term, but researchers assert that dyslexia is just one of several types of reading disabilities. A reading disability can affect any part of the reading process, including word recognition, word decoding, reading speed, prosody (oral reading with expression), and reading comprehension.
Dyscalculia is a form of math-related disability that involves difficulties with learning math-related concepts (such as quantity, place value, and time), memorizing math-related facts, organizing numbers, and understanding how problems are organized on the page. Dyscalculics are often referred to as having poor "number sense."
The term "dysgraphia" is often used as an overarching term for all disorders of written expression. Individuals with dysgraphia typically show multiple writing-related deficiencies, such as grammatical and punctuation errors within sentences, poor paragraph organization, multiple spelling errors, and excessively poor penmanship.
Dysgraphia is often characterized by grammatical and punctuation errors within sentences, poor paragraph organization, multiple spelling errors, and excessively poor penmanship.
DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria
The diagnosis of specific learning disorder was added to the DSM-5 in 2013. The DSM does not require that a single domain of difficulty (such as as reading, mathematics, or written expression) be identified—instead, it is a single diagnosis that describes a collection of potential difficulties with general academic skills, simply including detailed specifiers for the areas of reading, mathematics, and writing. Academic performance must be below average in at least one of these fields, and the symptoms may also interfere with daily life or work. In addition, the learning difficulties cannot be attributed to other sensory, motor, developmental, or neurological disorders.
The causes of learning disabilities are not well understood. However, some potential causes or contributing factors are:
- heredity. Learning disabilities often run in the family—children with learning disabilities are likely to have parents or other relatives with similar difficulties.
- problems during pregnancy and birth. Learning disabilities can result from anomalies in the developing brain, illness or injury, fetal exposure to alcohol or drugs, low birth weight, oxygen deprivation, or premature or prolonged labor.
- accidents after birth. Learning disabilities can also be caused by head injuries, malnutrition, or toxic exposure (such as to heavy metals or pesticides).
Individuals with learning disorders face unique challenges that may persist throughout their lives. Depending on the type and severity of their disability, interventions and technology may be used to help the individual learn strategies that will foster future success. Some interventions can be quite simple, while others are intricate and complex. Teachers, parents, and schools can work together to create a tailored plan for intervention and accommodation to aid an individual in successfully becoming an independent learner. School psychologists and other qualified professionals often help design and manage such interventions. Social support may also improve learning for students with learning disabilities.