What Is Specific Learning Disorder?
by The American Psychiatric Association (APA)
Specific learning disorder (often referred to as learning disorder or learning disability, see note on terminology) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins during school-age, although may not be recognized until adulthood. Learning disabilities refers to ongoing problems in one of three areas, reading, writing and math, which are foundational to one’s ability to learn.
An estimated 5 to 15 percent of school-age children struggle with a learning disability. An estimated 80 percent of those with learning disorders have reading disorder in particular (commonly referred to as dyslexia). One-third of people with learning disabilities are estimated to also have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Other specific skills that may be impacted include the ability to put thoughts into written words, spelling, reading comprehension, math calculation and math problem solving. Difficulties with these skills may cause problems in learning subjects such as history, math, science and social studies and may impact everyday activities.
Learning disorders, if not recognized and managed, can cause problems throughout a person’s life beyond having lower academic achievement. These problems include increased risk of greater psychological distress, poorer overall mental health, unemployment/under-employment and dropping out of school.
A note on terminology: Specific learning disorder is a medical term used for diagnosis. It is often referred to as “learning disorder.” “Learning disability” is a term used by both the educational and legal systems. Though learning disability is not exactly synonymous with specific learning disorder, someone with a diagnosis of specific learning disorder can expect to meet criteria for a learning disability and have the legal status of a federally recognized disability to qualify for accommodations and services in school. The term “learning difference” is a term that has gained popularity, especially when speaking with children about their difficulties, as it does not label them as “disordered.”
Learning disorder can only be diagnosed after formal education starts. To be diagnosed with a specific learning disorder, a person must meet four criteria.
1) Have difficulties in at least one of the following areas for at least six months despite targeted help:
- Difficulty reading (e.g., inaccurate, slow and only with much effort)
- Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read
- Difficulty with spelling
- Difficulty with written expression (e.g., problems with grammar, punctuation or organization)
- Difficulty understanding number concepts, number facts or calculation
- Difficulty with mathematical reasoning (e.g., applying math concepts or solving math problems)