Learning disabilities are commonly misdiagnosed, or even missed entirely. This is terrible news for any parent who wants their child on even academic footing with his peers, or for any adult who has spent a lifetime struggling with reading, writing, or math. The key to successful treatment is an accurate diagnosis and early intervention — so how can you spot a learning disability and get the necessary help when they are so often misinterpreted?
Learning disabilities — including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia — are not one-size-fits-all disorders. They vary in severity and visible symptoms, and can look different as a child grows older. However, there are some general age-related guidelines that can help with spotting and diagnosing symptoms.
- Difficulty with speech, or problems understanding what is being said
- Poor physical coordination, including difficulties with walking, sitting, coloring, or using scissors
- Trouble remembering information, long lists of instructions, or the order of daily routines
- Delays in social skills; difficulty playing with and reacting to other children
Early Elementary School:
- Problems with learning phonemes (individual units of sound) and with recognizing letters quickly
- Trouble sounding out words or recognizing familiar words by sight
- Trouble with reading comprehension, basic spelling, and grammar
- Physical problems forming letters or numbers
- Difficulty memorizing math facts, like multiplication tables
- Trouble with counting, basic adding or subtracting; counting on fingers after other classmates have moved past this technique, etc.
- Difficulty understanding oral instructions or expressing one’s thoughts verbally
Late Elementary School and Middle School:
- Difficulties reading independently or retaining what was read
- Trouble organizing thoughts for written work
- Difficulty learning new math concepts
- Trouble staying organized; often losing or misplacing homework or personal belongings
- Problems with time management
- Increased difficulty with reading assignments, writing papers, and understanding math concepts
- Continues to struggle with time management and organization as expectations of independence increase
- Poor spelling or handwriting
- Speaking slowly, or using a lot of filler phrases like “Uh, you know…”
- Difficulty understanding charts
- Problems with reading comprehension
- Difficulty following workplace instructions or finishing tasks
What Parents Can Do
If you suspect LD, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. Talk to your child’s primary teacher — she has likely noticed these difficulties as well, and can give insight into your child’s school performance and how well he is doing compared to his peers.
If the teacher agrees with your concerns, a special education teacher will typically step in to observe your child. If she also finds evidence of LD, a formal evaluation should be done to determine if he has a learning disability.
An evaluation can be completed by the school or by an outside professional. If an LD diagnosis is confirmed, most schools will begin trying modified teaching strategies — breaking tasks into smaller chunks, incorporating visual or hands-on learning strategies, and alternative exercises — for the child. If these fail to provide the support your child needs, more intensive measures can be taken, such as one-on-one teaching or a formal Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
If the school refuses to do an assessment or determines that no learning disability can be found, consider enlisting the help of a professional. LD can be treated successfully and difficulties can be overcome, but early intervention is key.
LD in Adults
Learning disabilities aren’t just for kids. If you suspect you have a learning disability, a diagnosis can help you be more productive in your life and career. Pursue an assessment by a psychologist who is specially trained in LD. These can range in cost, but a comprehensive six-hour, psycho-vocational assessment typically costs several thousand dollars. For adults who have learned to compensate for their learning disability, the cost may seem unnecessary — but for adults who have struggled with underachievement or underemployment, an accurate diagnosis can be the first step to developing a plan to manage their LD at last.