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An Overview

A learning difficulty (also referred to as a learning disability) is an issue with the brain's ability to process information. Children who have a learning difficulty may not learn/understand in the same way or time as other kids, and they find certain aspects of learning, such as the development of basic reading/writing skills, to be challenging. As these learning difficulties can't be cured, their effects may impact a person's performance throughout life: academically (in school), in the workplace, as well as in relationships and daily life. Intervention and support, which may be supplemented by counseling or other mental health care services like therapy and individualized education plans, can help an individual with a learning difficulty to achieve success in life.

Learning difficulties can be verbal or nonverbal.

Verbal learning difficulties affect a child's ability to read, write, or otherwise process spoken or written words

Nonverbal learning challenges can make it difficult for an child to process visual information or understand abstract concepts like fractions.

Some learning difficulties can also make it hard for an individual to focus: At least 20% of those with learning difficulties have a condition that affects the ability to focus or concentrate.

The common types of Learning Disabilities are :

  • Dyslexia: It can affect reading fluency and comprehension, writing, spelling, speech, and recall. Dyslexia may occur along with other  conditions.
  • Dysgraphia: A child with dysgraphia may find it difficult to write legibly (neatly), space words properly and consistently, spell, compose, think and write at the same time, or plan spatially (on paper). in simple terms, this condition grossly affects handwriting and other fine motor skills. 
  • Dyscalculia: This condition has an effect on the child's ability to develop math skills, understand numbers, and learn math-based facts. It can be difficult for children with dyscalculia to understand math symbols, organize/memorize numbers, tell time, and count. 
  • Auditory processing disorder : Also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder. Children with this problem may have difficulty recognizing the differences between sounds, understanding the order/pattern of sounds, recognizing the direction from where sounds have come, or separating/filtering sounds from background noise. 
  • Language processing disorder: This condition, a type of APD, makes it difficult for children to give meaning to sound groups in order to form words and sentences. It affects the processing of both expressive and receptive language. 
  • Nonverbal learning difficulties: These typically make it difficult for kids to interpret/understand facial expressions and body language. Visual-spatial, motor, and social skills may all be affected in this condition. 
  • Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit: Kids with dysgraphia or a nonverbal learning difficulty may also have a visual perceptual/visual motor issue, which can affect the way a person understands/comprehends visual information, the ability to draw and copy, hand/eye coordination, and the ability to follow along in text or on paper.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is not considered a learning difficulty, but research shows that almost 30-50% of children have both ADHD and a specific learning difficulty. When these problems occur together, learning becomes even more challenging/difficult. 

It is not exactly clear what causes learning difficulties, but researchers believe genetic influences, brain development, and environmental effects may all be likely to have some impact on the development of these issues.

  • While learning difficulties often appear in families, it is not clear whether this is due to genetic causes or if this  happens because children typically learn from and model/copy their parents.
  • Brain development before and after birth may lead to the development of learning difficulties.
  • Children born prematurely, had a low birth weight, or who sustained a head injury are more likely to develop a learning difficulty.
  • Environmental factors such as toxins and poor nutrition in early childhood are also known to be potential factors in the development of a learning difficulty.

The other common conditions associated with learning difficulties are :

Dyspraxia - is an condition which affects fine and/or gross motor coordination – it specifically affects the planning, organisation and timing of movements.  Single movements or tasks may be performed well, but it is difficult to co-ordinate several different movements or tasks, especially when there is time pressure.
Dyspraxia is also known as Development Co-ordination Disorder (DCD). The condition can be mild, but can also affect functioning in everyday life skills like play, education, work and employment.
Signs in children:

  • Difficulty controlling movements such as throwing, catching, bat and ball games, running, jumping, balancing and riding a bike.
  • Movements can be slow and hesitant.
  • A lack of confidence in tackling new skills.
  • Difficulty with writing and art work.
  • Problems with conceptual skills such as mastering jigsaw puzzles, sorting games (when younger), analysing scientific or mathematical problems.

Research suggests that almost half of children with dyslexia also have features of dyspraxia.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Research suggests 50% of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder will also have dyspraxia.

Autism spectrum disorder
Autism can be seen on its own, or with other conditions, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities.
Signs of autism include:

  • Unusual behaviour;
  • inflexible thinking;
  • over-reliance on routines;
  • lack of social and communication skills.


Asperger Syndrome is the term often used to describe those kids at the high functioning end of the Autistic Spectrum.  It involves significant difficulties with social interaction, communication and flexible/abstract thinking.

Emotional Behavioural Disorder (or Difficulties) – EBD
Some children’s behaviour or emotional responses are different from generally accepted norms, which can affect a child’s own learning or the learning of their peers.
Some people show signs of EBD as a result of unrecognised specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Visual Stress
Some children experience discomfort when looking at bright lights, certain patterns or strong contrasts and may also find some kinds of printed pages hard or uncomfortable to look at.  This has been known as Visual Discomfort, Visual stress or Meares-Irlen syndrome.  When severe, it can cause headaches, migraines or seizures.

Occupational Therapy (OT) can help children with learning disabilities to improve their performance at school and learn better. An occupational therapist can help children who have problems with attention or concentration, difficulties recalling spelling and writing letters or numbers correctly.

A child with a diagnosis of a learning disability can work with an OT who finds out the internal problems causing the difficulties, such as visual perceptual issues, attention problems or motor skills deficits. The OT aims to make the child’s participation in both home and school environment better.

Some strategies an OT uses to work with the child include:

  • The OT will make certain changes to the physical environment (in the classroom and/or at home) that may promote better participation from the child.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapies to help the child learn self-regulation, better attention and alertness.
  • Sensory assessments and tools/aids to help improve handwriting and other fine motors skills.
  • OTs will streamline activities to make them easier for the child to perform.
  • Memory prompts or aids to help mentally prepare the child, including visual cues.
  • Develop better time management strategies/skills

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