Learning Disabilities (The Hidden Disability)

October 17, 2018

The term "learning disabilities" is an umbrella term used to describe an array of learning disorders. An individual may have one learning disability or more than one co-occurring learning disability. A learning disability is a life-long neurobiological disorder that affects the manner in which individuals with potentially normal or above average intelligence select, retain and express information. Incoming or outgoing information may become scrambled as it travels between the senses and the brain. In many cases, learning disabilities interfere with the development and use of language and the ability to speak, read, write, spell or perform math calculations. Learning disabilities can impact an individual’s self-esteem, education, vocational ability, socialization, and daily living activities.

Learning disabilities are "hidden" disabilities meaning you cannot look at a person and “see” that they have a disability.  Many individuals with learning disabilities have average to above-average IQs.  Individuals with learning disabilities exhibit patterns of strengths and weaknesses and the disability create deficits in particular areas.

Learning disabilities are life-long.  They are not outgrown and they do not disappear when a child becomes an adult or leaves school.

Learning disabilities impact people in different ways. Some people are able to readily overcome the disability by learning compensatory strategies while others may need a higher level of supports and services.

The exact cause of learning disabilities is unknown but may include trauma during pregnancy or birth; family history of learning disabilities; prenatal or early childhood exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment such as lead paint and mercury or a combination of factors.

There is no “cure” for learning disabilities and learning disabilities cannot be treated with medication in the same way as ADHD can. However, many individuals who have learning disabilities learn strategies to compensate for their disability and with early diagnosis, appropriate accommodations, and services, people with learning disabilities can have successful outcomes in life.

Types of Learning Disabilities

There are many different learning disabilities, each affecting the specific skills necessary for learning. The following are some of the most common:

Dyslexia – A language-based disability in which a person has trouble understanding words, sentences or paragraphs.
Dysgraphia – A writing disability in which a person finds it difficult to form letters or write within a defined space.
Dyscalculia – A mathematical disability in which a person has a difficult time-solving arithmetic problem and grasping math concepts.
Dyspraxia – A speech disorder that interferes with a person’s ability to correctly pronounce sounds, syllables, and words. The area of the brain that tells the muscles how to move and what to do to make a particular sound or series of sounds is damaged or not fully developed.
Auditory, Memory and Processing Disabilities – a sensory disability in which a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision.


Dyslexia (difficulty reading)

Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Reading disabilities affect 2 to 8 percent of elementary school children. To read successfully, one must:

  • Focus attention on the printed symbols
  • Recognize the sounds associated with letters
  • Understand words and grammar
  • Build ideas and images
  • Compare new ideas to what you already know
  • Store ideas in memory

A person with dyslexia can have problems in any of the tasks involved in reading. However, scientists found that a significant number of people with dyslexia share an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. Some children have problems sounding out words, while others have trouble with rhyming games, such as rhyming “cat” with “bat.” Yet, scientists have found these skills fundamental to learning to read. Fortunately, remedial reading specialists have developed techniques that can help many children with dyslexia acquire these skills. However, there is more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain is unable to form images or relate new ideas to those stored in memory, the reader cannot understand or remember the new concepts. Other types of reading disabilities can appear in the upper grades when the focus of reading shifts from word identification to comprehension.

Dysgraphia (difficulty writing)

Writing too involves several brain areas and functions. The brain networks for vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, and memory must all be in good working order. A developmental writing disorder may result from problems in any of these areas. For example, a child with a writing disability, particularly an expressive language disorder, might be unable to compose complete and grammatically correct sentences.

Dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematics)

Arithmetic involves recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts, aligning numbers, and understanding abstract concepts like place value and fractions. Any of these may be difficult for children with developmental arithmetic disorders, also called dyscalculia. Problems with the number or basic concepts are likely to show up early. Disabilities that appear in the later grades are more often tied to problems in reasoning.

Other related conditions

Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities. It is not surprising that people can be diagnosed with more than one learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies learning to speak. Therefore, any disorder that hinders the ability to understand language will also interfere with the development of speech, which in turn hinders learning to read and write.

There are many disabilities that are related to learning disabilities. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) makes it difficult for children to control their behavior and pay attention. Non-verbal learning disabilities make it hard for people to understand non-verbal communication.

Indicators of Learning Disabilities


  • May have poor reading ability or poor comprehension.
  • May often misread information.
  • May have problems with syntax or grammar.
  • May confuse similar letters or numbers, reverse them or confuse their order.
  • May have difficulty reading addresses, small print and/or columns.


  • May have difficulty writing ideas and/or organizing thoughts on paper.
  • May reverse or omit letters, words or phrases when writing.
  • May have problems with sentence structure, writing mechanics and organization.
  • May frequently spell the same word differently in a single document.
  • May read well but not write well (or vice versa).


  • May have difficulty with arithmetic, math language, and math concepts.
  • May reverse numbers.
  • May have difficulty with time, sequencing and problem-solving.


  • May be able to explain things orally, but not in writing.
  • May have difficulty telling or understanding jokes or stories.
  • May misinterpret language or have poor comprehension of what is said.
  • May respond in an inappropriate manner, unrelated to what is said, or only respond partially to what is said.


  • May not respond to sounds of spoken language, or may consistently misunderstand what is being said.
  • May be bothered by different frequencies of sound (i.e., music, vacuums, loud noises) or may be overly sensitive to sound.
  • May have difficulty in differentiating sounds that occur simultaneously.


  • May acquire new skills slowly.
  • May have difficulty following directions, especially multiple directions.
  • May experience visual-spatial confusion (i.e., confusing right and left, up and down, under and over, behind and between).
  • May get lost in large buildings.
  • May seem unaware of time or sequence of events.


  • May perform similar tasks differently from day to day.
  • May have trouble dialing phone numbers or holding a pen/pencil.
  • May have poor coordination, be clumsy, unaware of physical surroundings or have a tendency to hurt his/herself.


  • May be able to learn information presented in one way, but not in another.
  • May find it difficult to memorize information (i.e., phone numbers, days of the week or months of the year).
  • May be unable to repeat what has just been said.


  • May have difficulty following a schedule or being on time.
  • May have trouble learning about time.
  • May have difficulty organizing belongings.


  • May have difficulty with social skills.
  • May misinterpret non-verbal social cues.
  • May experience social isolation.
  • May not use appropriate eye contact.


  • May have a short attention span or be impulsive.
  • May have difficulty conforming to routines.
  • May be easily distracted.
  • May experience stress on the extended mental effort.


People with learning disabilities and disorders can learn strategies for coping with their disabilities. Getting help earlier increases the likelihood of success in school and later in life. If learning disabilities remain untreated, a child may begin to feel frustrated with schoolwork, which can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and other problems.

Usually, experts work to help a child learn skills by building on the child’s strengths and developing ways to compensate for the child’s weaknesses. Interventions vary depending on the nature and extent of the disability.