Identifying Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are neurodevelopmental disorders that impact one or more area of cognitive processes involved in learning. Millions of children and adults, approximately 15% of the population, struggle with one or more learning disabilities. These individuals have areas of academic functioning where they struggle significantly compared to their intellectual abilities and their peers. Their processing problems interfere with their ability to learn and perform basic academic skills such as reading, writing, and math.
Dyscalculia affects the person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Dysgraphia affects the person’s handwriting ability and fine motor skills. Dyslexia affects reading and related language-based processing skills. Individuals can also present with non-verbal learning disabilities, where they have trouble interpreting non-verbal cues like facial expression or body language, and they can have poor coordination. Oral learning disabilities, specific reading comprehension deficits, and written language disorders can also be present. Often, learning disabilities impact the individual’s life outside of academics, effecting workplace performance and relationships with family and friends.
Learning disabilities often become apparent during elementary school, with the child struggling to keep up with peers in a specific academic area. However, some individuals do not receive an evaluation and diagnosis until adulthood. If there are concerns about a potential learning disability, the person is referred for a psychoeducational evaluation by a psychologist.
Generally, psychologists can begin to accurately identify learning disabilities in children once they reach third grade. Though younger children can display significant areas of academic impairment, it is not uncommon for many of these children to just have temporary delays, which they learn to overcome in early schooling so diagnosis is often deferred until they are older.
The psychologist will conduct a series of tests to assess the person’s individual strengths and weaknesses to determine if they meet criteria for a learning disability. If testing indicates that the individual has significant deficits in certain areas of cognitive processing they will receive a specific learning disorder diagnosis noting the areas of learning impairment.
Once a learning disability is identified, personalized interventions and supports can be put into place to help the person perform to their full potential (e.g. working with a teacher 1:1 to build academic skills, extra time on tests and assignments, and using assistive technology like talk-to-text). Further information on learning disabilities can be found at the Learning Disability Association of America’s website, https://ldaamerica.org.