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What is a Specific Learning Disability (SLD)?

Learning disabilities, or learning disorders, are an umbrella term for a wide variety of learning problems. A learning disability is not a problem with intelligence or motivation. Kids with learning disabilities aren't lazy or dumb. In fact, most are just as smart as everyone else. Their brains are simply wired differently. This difference affects how they receive and process information.

DSM-5 considers SLD to be a type of Neurodevelopmental Disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, or arithmetic), which are the foundation for other academic learning. The learning difficulties are 'unexpected' in that other aspects of development seem to be fine. A child may be assessed as having a specific learning disability when their difficulties are very specific and are not due to other causes, such as their general ability being below average, sight or hearing difficulties, emotional factors or a physical condition. Difficulties can range from mild to severe.

Specific learning disabilities include:

  • Dyslexia which is a difficulty in learning to read. Children may find it hard to learn to read words or to understand what is written.
  • Dyscalculia which is a difficulty with numbers. Children may find it hard to learn to count or add, subtract, multiply and divide or to understand how numbers work.
  • Dysgraphia which is a difficulty with writing or spelling. Children may find it hard to write legibly and may have problems with spelling. They may find it hard to put their thoughts in order when writing a story or essay.
  • Other types of learning difficulties include:

    • Dyspraxia. This condition, also termed sensory integration disorder, involves problems with motor coordination that lead to poor balance and clumsiness. Poor hand-eye coordination also causes difficulty with fine motor tasks such as putting puzzles together and coloring within the lines.9
    • Apraxia of speech. Sometimes called verbal apraxia, this disorder involves problems with speaking. People with this disorder have trouble saying what they want to say correctly and consistently.
    • Central auditory processing disorder. People with this condition have trouble understanding and remembering language-related tasks. They have difficulty explaining things, understanding jokes, and following directions. They confuse words and are easily distracted.
    • Nonverbal learning disorders. People with these conditions have strong verbal skills but great difficulty understanding facial expression and body language. In addition, they are physically clumsy and have trouble generalizing and following multistep directions.
    • Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit. People with this condition mix up letters; they might confuse "m" and "w" or "d" and "b," for example. They may also lose their place while reading, copy inaccurately, write messily, and cut paper clumsily.
    • Aphasia also called dysphasia is a language disorder. A person with this disorder has difficulty understanding spoken language, poor reading comprehension, trouble with writing, and great difficulty finding words to express thoughts and feelings. Aphasia occurs when the language areas of the brain are damaged. In adults, it often is caused by stroke, but children may get aphasia from a brain tumor, head injury, or brain infection.

Signs & Symptoms

Learning disabilities look very different from one child to another. One child may struggle with reading and spelling, while another loves books but can't understand math. Still another child may have difficulty understanding what others are saying or communicating out loud. The problems are very different, but they are all learning disorders. Following is a list of common red flags for learning disorder:

At Preschool age

  • Problems pronouncing words
  • Trouble finding the right word
  • Difficulty rhyming
  • Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, days of the week
  • Difficulty following directions or learning routines
  • Difficulty controlling crayons, pencils, and scissors, or coloring within the lines
  • Trouble with buttons, zippers, snaps, learning to tie shoes

Between Ages 5-9

  • Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • Unable to blend sounds to make words
  • Confuses basic words when reading
  • Slow to learn new skills
  • Consistently misspells words and makes frequent errors
  • Trouble learning basic math concepts
  • Difficulty telling time and remembering sequence

Between Ages 10-13

  • Difficulty with reading comprehension or math skills
  • Trouble with open-ended test questions and word problems
  • Dislikes reading and writing; avoids reading aloud
  • Poor handwriting
  • Poor organizational skills (bedroom, homework, desk is messy and disorganized)
  • Trouble following classroom discussions and expressing thoughts aloud
  • Spells the same word differently in a single document

Causes:

Experts aren't exactly sure what causes learning disabilities. Some possibilities include:

  • Heredity: Often, learning disabilities run in the family, so it's not uncommon to find that people with learning disabilities have parents or other relatives with similar difficulties.
  • Problems during pregnancy and birth: Learning disabilities may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth. It may also be caused by low birth weight, lack of oxygen, drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, and premature or prolonged labor.
  • Incidents after birth: Head injuries, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to toxic substances (i.e. lead) can contribute to learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities are NOT caused by economic disadvantage, environmental factors, or cultural differences. In fact, there is frequently no apparent cause for learning disabilities.


Diagnosing SLD:

Diagnosing a learning disability is a process. It involves detailed history taking, testing, and observation by a Clinical Psychologist.

Is there any treatment for learning disabilities?

Multiple interventions that look at all relevant biological, psychological, and social factors are essential and comprise a general principle of treatment. While there is no cure for specific learning disorder, there are many ways to improve reading, writing, and math skills for a child. Treatment usually includes both strengthening the skills and developing a learning strategy tailored to take advantage of a child's strengths.

Early Identification and Early Intervention is key!

After the assessment period, if your child is determined to have a disability, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is made. This personalized and written education plan

  • Lists individualized goals for the child
  • Specifies the plan for services the youngster will receive
  • Lists the specialists who will work with the child

Special Educator: The most common treatment for learning disabilities is special education. The basic approach is to teach learning skills by building on the child's abilities and strengths while correcting and compensating for disabilities and weaknesses.

Occupational therapy can be helpful to children who experience difficulty with motor and fine motor skills.

Speech therapists work with children who have language-based or reading comprehension issues and can help them improve their ability to understand and communicate in social situations

Clinical Psychologist: Psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy in particular, may also be helpful in treating the emotional and behavioral problems that can accompany specific learning disorder.

Some medications may be effective in helping the child learn by enhancing attention and concentration..

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