Learning Disabilities

‘Learning disabilities,’ sometimes called ‘learning disorders,’ is an umbrella term for a number of learning problems. Children and adults with learning disabilities absorb and process information differently. They may find it difficult to read, write, do maths, reason, listen or speak.

This does not mean such people are lazy, unmotivated or unintelligent. Their brains are just wired differently from those of other people.

Children with learning disabilities can succeed, and many do

No parent wants to see their child suffer, and parents may worry about how their child will fare in the world if they are perceived as being ‘slow.’

Most children with learning disabilities are just as smart as their peers. All they need is teaching tailored to their unique way of learning. The best way parents can help their child succeed is to educate themselves about learning disabilities and what their child needs.

Paediatricians, psychologists or therapists, and special educators are involved in determining the right course of action to take to help children with learning disabilities.

A learning disability is a permanent condition that develops in very early life. This may sound grim and final, but the brain has a natural, lifelong ability to change. This is called neuroplasticity, and it means that strategic brain exercises can identify and strengthen children’s ‘mental muscles.’

If you believe your child needs special assistance, don’t delay in seeking help and support



Learning disabilities may result from many factors affecting brain development before birth (prenatal), during birth, or in childhood due to illness or accident. Possible causes include:

  • Inherited (genetic) conditions
  • Chromosomal abnormalities (e.g., Down’s Syndrome)
  • Lack of oxygen supply to the brain during birth
  • Very premature birth
  • Mother’s illness during pregnancy
  • Mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy may pose a risk, though the relationship is not yet clear-cut
  • A serious illness or injury in early childhood that affects brain development
  • Exposure to dangerous materials or chemicals

Any one of these factors, or their interaction, may cause a learning disability. It’s not always possible to identify the specific cause, and the list above is not exhaustive.

Signs & Indications

Identifying learning disabilities is not always easy as the signs vary from one child to another.

However, there are some signs that may indicate a learning disability.

Remember, children without learning disabilities may also experience the same signs from time to time. Parents should only be concerned if their child consistently struggles with certain skills.

Pre-school age

Ages 5 to 9

Ages 10 to 13

  • Trouble pronouncing words
  • Trouble finding the right word
  • Difficulty with rhyming
  • Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, shapes, colours, days of the week
  • Trouble following directions or learning routines
  • Trouble using crayons, pencils or craft instruments
  • Trouble with coordination (using buttons, zips, shoelaces, colouring inside the lines)
  • Trouble learning to relate letters and their sounds
  • Trouble blending sounds to make words
  • Confuses simple words while reading
  • Struggles to learn new skills
  • Consistently misspells words or makes errors
  • Trouble learning basic maths concepts
  • Trouble telling time
  • Trouble remembering sequences
  • Trouble with reading comprehension or maths skills
  • Trouble with open-ended questions and word problems
  • Dislikes reading and writing
  • Shies away from reading aloud
  • Poor handwriting
  • Poor organisational skills
  • Trouble following classroom conversation or participating in it
  • Spells the same word in different ways in a single piece of writing

You know your child best. If you’re concerned about your child’s progress, get an evaluation or consult your paediatrician.


Types of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are often grouped by skill-set. For example, reading, writing and maths; motor skills (movement and coordination); and auditory and visual processing.

It’s important to understand that children may suffer from other conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which are not, strictly speaking, learning disabilities, but may also disrupt a child’s ability to learn.

Learning disabilities with reading (Dyslexia)

There are two ways in which learning disabilities manifest in reading: basic reading problems (difficulty in understanding how sounds, letters and words relate) and reading comprehension problems (inability to grasp what words, phrases or paragraphs mean).

Children with dyslexia may face difficulty with recognising letters and words; understanding ideas and the meanings of words; reading slowly or with great hesitation; and general vocabulary skills.

Learning disabilities with maths (Dyscalculia)

Mathematical learning disabilities may vary depending on the child’s other abilities. For example, a child’s ability to do maths will differ if co-occurring with a language learning disability, a visual disorder or difficulties with memory, organisation or sequencing.

Children with dyscalculia may have trouble memorising and organising mathematical elements and concepts (like multiplication tables). They may also struggle with counting principles (for example, counting 10, 20, 30, 40…) or telling time.

Learning disabilities with writing (Dysgraphia)

These disabilities may be with the physical act of writing or the mental activity of comprehending and fusion of information, and can be of two types: basic (physical difficulty in forming letters and words) and expressive (difficulty articulating thoughts on paper).

Children with dysgraphia may have problems with neatness and consistency of writing; accurately transcribing letters and words; spelling words consistently; and writing in a coherent, organised manner.

Learning disabilities with motor skills (dyspraxia)

Whether with fine motor skills (such as cutting out shapes with scissors or writing) or gross motor skills (like running, jumping and tumbling), children with dyspraxia may experience problems with movement and coordination. They struggle with physical activities that require hand-eye coordination, for example, holding a crayon or buttoning clothing.

Learning disabilities with language (Aphasia and Dysphasia)

Language and communication learning disabilities inhibit the ability to understand or produce spoken language that can be comprehended by others.

Children with aphasia or dysphasia might have problems with verbal skills like telling or repeating a story or joke; understanding the meanings of words and parts of speech; following directions, etc.

Auditory processing disorder

The ability to hear well is called ‘auditory processing skill’ or ‘receptive language’ and it is critical to the ability to read, write and spell. Inability to distinguish subtle differences in sound, or hearing sounds at the incorrect speed, make sounding out words and understanding the basics of reading and writing very difficult.

Auditory processing disorder is different from deafness. If no other form of hearing loss is present, auditory processing disorder means that while the ears and auditory system are fully capable of receiving sound signals, the brain cannot process them correctly.

Visual processing disorder

Visual perception problems include the inability to detect subtle differences in shapes, reversing letters or numbers, skipping words or lines, faulty depth or distance perception, and poor hand-eye coordination. Children with visual processing disorder may have problems with gross and fine motor skills, reading comprehension and maths.

Visual processing disorder is different from blindness. In the absence of any other impediment to vision, visual processing disorder means the optic system is able to receive visual information but the brain is unable to process it.

Other Disorders that Inhibit Learning

Children struggling in school don’t necessarily have learning disabilities. They may also face challenges from anxiety, depression, stress, emotional trauma and conditions like ADHD and ASD that may co-occur or be often confused with learning disabilities.

As with learning disabilities, ADHD and ASD have nothing to do with intelligence. Children with these conditions are often high-functioning and highly intelligent.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children with ADHD often have problems sitting still, focusing on a single activity, following instructions without being distracted, keeping themselves organised and completing school work unless supervised.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Pervasive developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome may make it difficult for children to master some academic skills. Such children may struggle to communicate, read body language, learn basic skills, make friends or make eye contact.

Diagnosis & Support

Diagnosing a learning disability involves testing, understanding the child’s history, and observation by a trained specialist. Several professionals (the child’s primary care physician, psychologists, therapists, special educators, etc.) may work together to obtain an accurate diagnosis, with input from the child’s parents and teachers.

Each child develops differently, so diagnosing a learning disability is not always clear-cut. There’s no harm in looking into the issue, the earlier the better, and never let your concerns be minimised.

Rather than focusing on what learning disability your child may have, focus on what you can do to support your child’s learning needs.

Specialists may recommend customised academic help and learning plans; speech or activity therapy; and other forms of cognitive ‘exercise’ for your child. But learning begins at home, so it’s important that parents take the lead in understanding the options, becoming aware of new treatments and services, and overseeing their children’s educational progress.

Contact us to schedule an evaluation or discuss therapy options for your child.


How You Can Help

Learn. Find out how your child’s learning disability affects their learning process, what cognitive skills are involved and what challenges your child may face.

Research. Educate yourself on the latest research and treatment options. Seek out support groups and communicate with practitioners, wherever they may be, to find out how effective new approaches are. Discuss new options with your child’s doctor or therapist.

Treat. Your child’s school may not have the resources or expertise to accommodate your child’s special requirements. Continue to pursue options at home, with a qualified special educator or therapist.

Encourage. Children with learning disabilities may struggle in one area but excel in others. By being aware of and fostering your child’s interests and passions, you can give them the confidence they need to cope with the areas where they have problems.

Nurture. Learning disabilities can be very frustrating for children, especially when they struggle with something that all their friends can tackle easily or that may be embarrassing. Bright children with learning disabilities can be more affected, but all such children struggle to express their thoughts and feelings, keep calm or read non-verbal cues.

Helping your child with social and emotional skills is the area in which you, as a parent, can have the greatest positive impact on your child’s development. You can protect your child from low self-esteem, isolation and behavioural problems by creating a bubble of love and support around them where they can express themselves, learn to cope with frustration and work through challenges.

These skills will give them the best tools to succeed not just at learning, but at life.

Diagnosis & Support

Being the parent of a child with a learning disability can be stressful and frustrating, but the satisfaction and joy in seeing your child win confidence and success are priceless. Ensure that you are taking care of your own physical and mental wellbeing so you can be the best parent for your child.