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Important Context for Counselling Persons With Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities make it harder to acquire, organize, retain, understand, or use verbal or non-verbal information.

These disorders affect learning in people who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities to think or reason. For this reason, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.

Learning disabilities can be more or less severe. They may interfere with acquiring and using:

  • Oral language (listening, speaking, understanding)
  • Reading (decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension)
  • Written language (spelling and written expression)
  • Mathematics (computation, problem solving)

Living with learning disabilities

“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

History of the learning disabilities movement

Before the early 1960s, there was no recognized field of learning disabilities. Children who had trouble learning were given a variety of labels, such as “minimally brain damaged” or “perceptually impaired.”

The learning disabilities movement gathered strength after it began in 1963. Its general approach to educating exceptional children is to:

  • Understand individual differences in learning by looking at the different approaches to learning tasks
  • Tailor educational interventions to individual children and their strengths and weaknesses
  • Help children learn by strengthening deficient processes or by using teaching methods that avoid stressing weak areas

The learning disabilities movement is now solidly supported in law. It has many well-informed advocates and professionals working on its behalf, and it is the subject of challenging and useful research.

Types of learning disabilities

Learning disabilities result from impairments in processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering, or learning. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Language processing
  • Phonological processing (the system or pattern of sounds of a specific language)
  • Visual-spatial processing
  • Processing speed
  • Memory and attention
  • Executive functions, such as planning and decision making

Learning disabilities may also affect organizational skills, social perception, and social interaction.

Non-verbal learning disorders

A non-verbal learning disorder (NLD) is a neurological disorder that originates in the right hemisphere of the brain. This hemisphere governs non-verbal or performance-based information. Impairments can cause problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative, and holistic processing functions.

Persons with NLD often have:

  • Early speech and vocabulary development
  • Remarkable rote memory skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Early development of reading skills and excellent spelling skills
  • Fluent verbal ability
  • Strong auditory retention

Persons with NLD may experience:

  • Motor deficits—lack of co-ordination, problems with balance, and problems with graphomotor skills
  • Visual-spatial-organizational deficits—poor visual recall, faulty spatial perceptions, and difficulty with spatial relations
  • Social deficits—not being able to understand non-verbal communications, trouble adjusting to change and new situations, and poor social judgment

Common characteristics of learning disabilities

Learning disabilities:

  • Are lifelong
  • Are due to genetic or neurobiological factors or injuries that change brain functioning
  • May coexist with various other conditions, such as attentional, behavioural, and emotional disorders, as well as sensory impairments or other medical conditions
  • Can be improved, compensated for, and accommodated

Learning disabilities 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 disabilities in adults are:

  • Trouble reading, writing, and spelling
  • Not being able to complete a job application form
  • Not being able to follow written directions
  • Not being able to remember several verbal directions
  • Trouble putting thoughts down on paper
  • Feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem
  • Trouble finding or keeping a job
  • Trouble budgeting and managing money
  • Time management difficulties
  • A short attention span, restlessness, or hyperactivity
  • Trouble understanding appropriate social behaviour
  • Poor co-ordination and spatial disorientation
  • Trouble with problem-solving strategies

All of us show some of the signs listed above at some time. They may not always be significant. However, if a person shows a cluster of these behaviours, an assessment may be required.

A common sign of a learning disability is inconsistency. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada says that there is “a noticeable difference between areas where they function well and those where they don’t.” For example, a child may be able to express ideas clearly out loud but not be able write coherently. Inconsistency 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 disabilities. 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
  • Not be able to organize belongings, time, activities, or responsibilities
  • Fail to succeed in academics
  • Have problems starting and completing plans and assignments
  • Learn well when shown, but not be able to follow written or verbal instructions
  • Need ongoing encouragement and support

A person who has trouble with social skills may have a learning disability. The person 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
  • Not be able to sit still
  • Be insecure or fearful
  • Take things literally

Understanding what role the client’s learning disability plays at home, in school, or at work is a good starting point. Many resources are available to help clients learn about the impact of disabilities. 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 disability.

Coexisting diagnoses

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may coexist with a learning disability.

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) or fetal alcohol effects (FAE)
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
  • Alcohol-related birth defects

For more information on FASD, see Important Context for Counselling Persons With Developmental Disabilities.

ADHD is considered both a developmental disability and a neurological disability. It interferes with being able to sustain attention or focus on a task and to control impulsive behaviour. Persons with ADHD may have trouble organizing their thoughts, planning activities, prioritizing tasks, managing time, and making decisions. These skills are required 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 Persons With Physical and Neurological Disabilities.

Barriers and challenges

Building hope

“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

The secondary reactions to living with a learning disability can sometimes be more difficult to deal with than the disability itself. Many persons with learning disabilities differ from their peers in some areas of social competence.

Social skills

Persons with learning disabilities often cannot read social cues effectively. They may be labelled as social misfits or loners, or as having behavioural problems. Many adults with learning disabilities 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 disabilities the social skills that will help them both socially and academically. Adults with learning disabilities also benefit from direct teaching of social skills, especially skills that lead to more success in the workplace.

Emotional health

Adults with learning disabilities may be at risk for serious emotional 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. They may feel angry when they need to perform in situations that don’t reflect their true abilities.

Assumptions about intelligence and career goals

Many people at school or work may wrongly assume that learning disabilities 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.

Many persons with learning disabilities have average or above-average intelligence. Though many are gifted, their talents and skills may be underused because their disabilities are undiagnosed or misunderstood.

Persons with learning disabilities 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. Males with learning disabilities are twice as likely as their peers to seek low-prestige occupations. Females with learning disabilities have lower occupational goals than their peers. Students with learning disabilities who hold low perceptions of self-efficacy may not feel confident enough to pursue careers, even when they have the skills, attitudes, and abilities to succeed.

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