Common learning disorders and their impact

Common learning disorders – key points of interest

  • Learning disorders - almost universally neurological (brain based) in origin; caused by parts of the brain functioning differently to those of the general population
  • Often a learning disorder coexists with another learning disorder (comorbidity). 
  • Learning disorders:
    • are not caused by low intelligence
    • cannot be adequately measured using standard IQ tests
    • do not respect culture, ethnicity, socio-economic status
    • are complex, multifactorial in origin and genetics plays a significant role; people with a history of learning disorders in the family are at increased risk


  • A language based learning disorder characterised by slow or inaccurate processing of speech sounds - a phonological processing disorder
  • Affects accurate and fluent reading, writing & spelling
  • Affects maths proficiency.
  • Dyslexia is not a disorder of visual processing and generally responds poorly to vision therapy
  • There is no 'cure' for dyslexia – it is a life-long disorder managed through evidence based remedial strategies  
  • Students who cannot read, write or do maths effectively are at significant emotional, psychological and economic harm
  • Early and effective intervention is essential and remarkable gains can be made


  • Dyscalculia is characterised by marked difficulties forming basic number concepts
  • Dyscalculia is less common than dyslexia
  • An accurate diagnosis of dyscalculia is hard to achieve due to inconsistent definitions and due to the overlay of other learning disabilities


  • A learning disorder affecting the ability to produce legible, well-formed and fluent handwriting (and difficulties typing)
  • Students with severe dysgraphia require explicit hands-on instruction
  • Severe dysgraphia is often best overcome through the use of speech to text software
  • Orton-Gillingham and other multisensory learning approaches address many handwriting problems


  • Dyspraxia (also known as Sensory Integration Disorder) is an inability to perform tasks requiring fine motor skills.
  • Dyspraxia is wider in scope than dysgraphia and includes impaired skills in balance, motor sequencing/planning, writing and tying shoelaces
  • A speech and language therapist can diagnose and treat and work with a remedial teacher as required 

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

  • An Auditory Processing disorder is marked by difficulties distinguishing sounds and efficiently storing auditory information in the brain for retrieval
  • APD overlaps with dyslexia and is not generally considered  to be a separate disability

Visual Processing Disorder (VPD)

  • Visual Processing Disorders stem from neurological deficits in the right hemisphere of the brain
  • People with VPD have difficulty reading maps, aligning text, focusing on fine text, or writing in a straight line
  • Effective diagnosis is complicated by similar conditions not VPD in origin  


  • ADHD is not a single learning disorder but a collective term describing a range of disorders marked by:
    • Inattention –  difficulty concentrating, forgets instructions, moving from one task to another without completing the task
    • Impulsivity – talks over the top of others, has a ‘short fuse, accident prone and for children ‘getting into trouble at school’
    • Overactivity – constant restlessness and fidgeting. Never sits still. Constantly on the go. Hard to get to sleep. Multitasking all the time
  • Stimulant medication is often used. The support of a skilled paediatrician or psychiatrist is essential

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

  • The standard medical classification system (DSM5) for ASD published by the American Psychiatric Association defines autism spectrum disorders in these terms: 
    • People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age
    • In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items
    • Symptoms of people with ASD fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms  and others having much more severe symptoms

Treatment varies according to intellectual level and age but specific social skills training is helpful.