Specific learning disorders make it harder to acquire, organize, retain, understand, or use verbal or non-verbal information.
Formerly called learning disabilities, specific learning disorders affect people who otherwise show average or above-average intelligence. They may be caused by genetic or neurobiological factors that alter brain function. Or they may result from acquired brain injury. They affect one or more processes related to learning.
Learning disorders are lifelong. They are most often diagnosed during a child’s school years, when they are acquiring language, math, and social skills. However, children might not be diagnosed early if:
- They have a mild disorder that doesn’t cause problems until learning becomes more advanced in secondary or even post-secondary school.
- They develop “work arounds”—ways to compensate for or mask their difficulties.
- Those teaching them don’t recognize the signs, which are unique to every child, or are unfamiliar with the full range of disorders and their symptoms.
In Canada, more children have a learning disorder than all other disorders and disabilities combined. Of all children with disabling conditions in Canada, nearly 60% have a learning disorder. More than half a million adults live with a learning disorder, many of which are undiagnosed.
Living with learning disorders
“It was once believed that learning disabilities were a childhood disorder. We now know that this is not true—learning disabilities are lifelong and can affect friendships, school, work, self-esteem, and daily life.”—Literacy Alberta
Types of learning disorders
The most common learning disorders affect reading, writing, and math:
- Dyscalculia is difficulty with numbers. It can affect the ability to do math, understand time, and use money.
- Dysgraphia is difficulty with writing. It can affect handwriting, spelling, and the ability to organize ideas.
- Dyslexia is difficulty with reading. It can affect reading, writing, spelling, and speaking.
Some learning disorders are less common. These include (but are not limited to):
- Dyspraxia (sensory integration disorder or SID) is difficulty with fine motor skills. It can affect hand-eye coordination, balance, and manual dexterity.
- Dysphasia is difficulty with oral language. It can affect the ability to understand written or spoken language.
- Auditory processing disorder (APD) is difficulty hearing differences between sounds. It can affect reading, comprehension, and language.
- Visual processing disorder (VPD) is difficulty with visual information. It can affect reading, doing math, or interpreting maps, charts, symbols, or pictures.
Non-verbal learning disorders
The term non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD or NLD) does not refer to problems with verbal skills. On the contrary, people with NVLD tend to be very verbal. However, they lack the ability to understand non-verbal communication.
It is estimated that up to 95% of all communication is non-verbal (body language, facial expression, and vocal inflection). This puts people with NVLD at a severe disadvantage. It also explains why they are very talkative: they are trying to use their verbal skills to make up for their lack of non-verbal skills.
Children with NVLD typically develop verbal skills very early. They do well in school years because they excel at rote learning. Reading, spelling, and basic math come easily to them. Parents and educators rarely suspect a learning disorder and instead see them as exceptionally bright. But these adults tend to overlook or misinterpret significant difficulty in the following 5 areas:
- Visual and spatial awareness. Poor visual recall and spatial perceptions can make people with NVLD physically clumsy. It can also cause problems with handwriting.
- Higher-order comprehension. People with NVLD have a hard time identifying the main idea in things. This can make it hard to understand what’s important and what’s not.
- Social communication. An inability to read the non-verbal signs of people’s emotions can lead them to make poor social choices—and have few friends. Many kids with NVLD love technology like video games because the communication is all verbal. They don’t have to consider non-verbal cues.
- Math concepts. People with NVLD may excel at the rote learning of basic math skills. But they struggle to identify the concepts and patterns in advanced math.
- Executive functions. People with NVLD tend to have weak organizing and planning skills. This can make it difficult for them to break a process down into steps or group ideas into categories. They have difficulty managing time.
NVLD is the result of damage to the brain’s right hemisphere or to the corpus callosum. The right hemisphere governs non-verbal information while the corpus callosum helps the brain integrate information from different sources, such as touch and sight. The damage can be caused by exposure to alcohol, radiation, or chemotherapy drugs. It can also be caused by certain illnesses or acquired brain injury (ABI).
Some experts believe NVLD is as common as dyslexia but severely underdiagnosed. It is often misdiagnosed as ADHD but, when medication doesn’t help, the expert looks for other causes. The problem may then be misdiagnosed as autism. However, autism is developmental while NVLD is neurological. NVLD also bears similarities to FASD—which is, in fact, one of many possible causes.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may coexist with a specific learning disorder.
FASD describes the range of disabilities that can result from prenatal exposure to alcohol. FASD is not a diagnosis. It is an umbrella term that covers:
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
- Partial FAS (pFAS)
- Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
- Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD)
- Neurobehavioural disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)
For more information on FASD, see Important Context for Counselling People With Developmental Disorders.
ADHD is considered both a developmental and a neurological disorder. It interferes with the ability to sustain attention or focus on a task and to control impulsive behaviour. People with ADHD may have trouble organizing their thoughts, planning activities, prioritizing tasks, managing time, and making decisions. These skills are needed more in adulthood. They can often become a major issue for adults diagnosed with ADHD.
For more information on ADHD, see Important Context for Counselling People With Physical and Neurological Conditions.
There is overlap between traits of learning disorders and ASD, but while all people with autism have learning disorders, not all people with learning disorders have autism. These days, children are screened for autism around the age of 2. However, this was not done when many of today’s adults were children. Many adults may now wonder if they have autism only to find it’s a learning disorder.
For more information on ASD, see Important Context for Counselling People With Developmental Disorders.
Working with specific learning disorders
Although learning disorders are lifelong, they can be improved, compensated for, and accommodated. The approach to working with children with learning disorders is to:
- Understand individual differences in learning and look at different approaches to learning
- Tailor educational interventions to individuals and their unique strengths and weaknesses
- Help individuals learn by strengthening deficient processes or by using teaching methods that avoid stressing weak areas
Neuroplasticity—another word for hope
It was once thought that, after a certain stage of very early childhood, the brain was “hardwired” for life. Over the past few decades, research has shown that the brain continues to change throughout life. This ongoing change is called neuroplasticity.
This discovery has given rise to innovative programs that use strategically designed brain exercises to identify weak cognitive areas. These weak areas can then be strengthened, or they can be replaced by developing other areas to take over for them.
This offers new hope to people with learning disorders. Rather than learning skills to cope with their brain disorders, they may be able to replace damaged neurological pathways with healthy new ones. Put simply, they may be able to “rewire” their brain.
Specific learning disorders in adults
Learning disorders may be evident in academic, employment, and social situations. They affect people’s ability to interpret what they see and hear or to connect information from different parts of the brain.
Some common signs of learning disorders in adults include:
- Trouble reading, writing, and spelling
- Inability to complete a job application form
- Inability to follow written directions
- Inability to remember verbal directions
- Trouble putting thoughts down on paper
- Trouble finding or keeping a job
- Trouble budgeting and managing money
- Trouble with time management
- A short attention span, restlessness, or hyperactivity
- Trouble understanding appropriate social behaviour
- Poor coordination or spatial disorientation
- Poor problem-solving skills
Another common sign of a learning disorder is inconsistency. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada says there is “a noticeable difference between areas where [people] function well and those where they don’t.” For example, a person may be able to express ideas clearly out loud but not be able write coherently. Inconsistencies may also show up in differences between tested potential and performance.
A client’s history of work, education and social behaviour can also signal the presence of learning disorders. For example, clients may:
- Exhibit high potential but poor performance
- Often be unemployed or underemployed
- Have no specific career plans
- Be frequently late or absent
- Be unable to organize belongings, time, activities, or responsibilities
- Do poorly in academics
- Have problems starting and completing plans and assignments
- Learn well when shown, but be unable to follow written or verbal instructions
- Need ongoing encouragement and support
A person who struggles with social skills may have a learning disorder. They may:
- Seem constantly anxious, tense, or depressed
- Have poor self-concept
- Take part in few social activities
- Have trouble reading social cues
- Be demanding
- Be withdrawn, a loner
- Have a poor concept of personal space
- Be impulsive
- Show age-inappropriate behaviour
- Seem frustrated
- Be unable to sit still
- Be insecure or fearful
- Take things literally
Understanding what role the client’s learning disorder plays at home, in school, or at work is a good starting point. Many resources can help clients learn about the impact of learning disorders. But it’s important to keep in mind that all people can face daily changes that seem overwhelming. Not all difficulties are due to a learning disorder.
Barriers and challenges
“Generally, clients with learning disabilities are long-term unemployed and are disenchanted. It is important to address that disenchantment by including activities to build self-esteem, self-enhancement, and self-confidence as well as specific skills related to employment.”—Dr. R. Gall, Former Executive Director, Champions Career Centre
Secondary reactions to living with a learning disorder can sometimes be more difficult to deal with than the disorder itself. Many people with learning disorders differ from their peers in some areas of social competence.
People with learning disorders often cannot read social cues effectively. They may be labelled as social misfits or loners, or as having behavioural problems. Many adults with learning disorders report that they are unhappy with their social lives. They may have trouble making and keeping friends. They may not take part in social events and have few social contacts.
The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada advocates for actively teaching children who have learning disorders the social skills that will help them both socially and academically. Adults with learning disorders also benefit from direct teaching of social skills, especially skills that lead to more success in the workplace.
Adults with learning disorders may be at risk for serious mental health problems. These adults often report high levels of distress, anxiety, depression, and frustration, along with feelings of failure and helplessness. They not only have to deal with functional limitations but also may have to prove their disabilities, which are often invisible, to qualify for help. They may feel angry when they need to perform in situations that neither accommodate their learning disorders nor reflect their true abilities.
Careers and assumptions about intelligence
Many people at school or work may wrongly assume that learning disorders are signs of low intelligence. Without a proper diagnosis and understanding, parents, teachers, counsellors, and employers may stand in the way of a person’s healthy development. This can affect the person’s personal life, academics, and career.
Most people with learning disorders have average or above-average intelligence. Many are gifted, but their talents and skills are underused because their disorders are undiagnosed, untreated, or misunderstood.
People with learning disorders are as likely to be employed as their peers. However, they tend to work in lower-skilled occupations and make less money. They may have lower career aspirations even though they have the skills and potential to succeed in more demanding roles.
Males with learning disorders are twice as likely as their peers to seek low-prestige occupations. Females with learning disorders have lower occupational goals than their peers. Students with learning disorders who hold low perceptions of self-efficacy may lack confidence to pursue careers, even when they have the skills, aptitudes, and abilities to succeed. This is a loss that employment counsellors may be able to address.