Learning Disabilities and Disorders

Learning disabilities (disorders) affect how your child’s brain takes in and uses information. There are multiple types, like dyslexia and nonverbal learning disorders. Learning disabilities are manageable with interventions that can help your child learn in a different way.


What is a learning disability?

Learning disabilities (LDs) affect how your brain processes information. This could include how you:

  • Acquire (take in) information.
  • Organize information.
  • Retain information.
  • Understand information.
  • Use information.

LDs can involve verbal (words or speech) and/or nonverbal information. They typically affect how you read, write and/or do math. They can range from mild to severe.

Learning disabilities don’t affect intelligence and are different from intellectual disabilities. People with LDs have specific issues with learning. But they have an average or above-average IQ (intelligence quotient).

Most people with an LD find out about it early in school. But some people don’t get a diagnosis until adolescence or adulthood.

What’s the difference between a learning disability and a learning disorder?

Many people use “learning disability” and “learning disorder” interchangeably. But there are technical differences:

  • Learning disorder: This is a diagnostic term. A licensed professional (like a psychologist) diagnoses someone with a learning disorder based on certain criteria. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) defines “learning disorder” and its criteria.
  • Learning disability: This is a legal term. A public school identifies a student with a learning disability based on a variety of assessments and documentation. This may result in legal rights, like the right to an individualized education plan (IEP). In the U.S., the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines what a learning disability is.

What are specific learning disorders?

“Specific learning disorder” is the term the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders uses to describe neurodevelopmental disorders that involve consistent difficulty in at least one of three major areas:

  • Reading.
  • Writing.
  • Math.

Specific learning disorders include:

  • Dyslexia (reading disability): This LD makes reading and language-related tasks harder. Dyslexia happens because of disruptions in how your brain processes written words so you can understand them. This may look like issues with spelling simple words, learning the names of letters, rhyming, sounding out new words and more.
  • Dysgraphia: This LD affects your ability to turn your thoughts into written language despite exposure to adequate instruction and education. This may look like issues with handwriting legibility, spelling, holding a pencil correctly, the rate or speed of writing, grammar and more.
  • Dyscalculia: This LD affects your ability to understand number-based information and math. This may look like issues with counting upwards, doing simple calculations from memory, memorizing multiplication tables, organizing math problems and more.

Nonverbal learning disorder

Nonverbal learning disorders affect activities that don’t involve words or speech, like:

  • Problem-solving.
  • Visual-spatial tasks
  • Recognizing social cues.

The DSM-5-TR doesn’t currently recognize nonverbal LDs as a type of specific learning disorder. But research shows that about 5% of people with LDs have cognitive and academic difficulties associated with nonverbal LDs.

Nonverbal learning disorders can affect:

  • Social abilities, like using social language (slang or informal language) or understanding facial expressions or body language.
  • Executive functioning, like planning, organizing and emotional regulation.
  • Visual-spatial awareness, which can cause issues with coordination.
  • Math skills, particularly comprehension of more advanced math topics.

How common are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are relatively common. Researchers estimate that 10% of people in the U.S. receive an LD diagnosis at some point in their lives. About 5% of school-aged children globally have LDs.

Dyslexia is the most common. It accounts for at least 80% of LDs.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the signs of learning disabilities?

The main sign of any learning disability is when there’s a difference between a child’s academic potential and their academic performance.

You may notice signs of severe learning disorders at an early age. But parents and teachers don’t typically recognize most mild to moderate learning disorders until school age (5 and older) when challenges in schoolwork appear. And even more severe learning disorders may not be able to be diagnosed until your child is going to school.

Each type of learning disability has its own signs. But, in general, signs of learning disorders may include difficulties with:

  • Identifying letters, numbers, colors and/or math symbols.
  • Counting.
  • Expanding vocabulary.
  • Rhyming.
  • Sounding out words during reading.
  • Organizing, beginning and/or completing assignments.
  • Organizing thoughts to express what they want to say.
  • Long-term or short-term memory.
  • Holding a pencil correctly.
  • Legibility of their handwriting.
  • Retelling a story in sequential order.
  • Staying on task.
  • Following directions.
  • Coordination.
  • Conceptualizing, abstracting, reasoning and organizing information for problem-solving.

These are just some examples. And they’re not enough to determine if your child has a learning disorder. Only a professional can diagnose a learning disorder.

Your child may have several signs of an LD or just a few. They can also have more than one type of LD.

Behavior symptoms

Learning disorders often affect your child’s self-esteem and how they feel about school. They may also feel frustrated that their performance doesn’t match their peers’. The following behaviors may be signs of a learning disorder:

  • Not wanting to go to school.
  • Not wanting to read out loud or do mathematical problems in front of peers.
  • Complaining about their teacher(s) or blaming teachers for their grades.
  • Not wanting to show schoolwork to their caregivers.
  • Avoiding assignments.
  • “Acting out” in school or social situations.
  • Having mood swings, temper tantrums or outbursts of defiance.
  • Saying self-critical statements, like “I’m stupid.”

If your child is having these difficulties, it’s important to talk with them and find them help.

What causes learning disabilities?

Researchers still have a lot to learn about learning disabilities and their causes. Currently, they think LDs result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It’s important to note that learning disabilities don’t result from physical sensory issues, like low vision or hearing loss.

Studies show that risk factors for LDs include:

LDs often exist alongside other disorders, including:

Some studies show that LDs affect 20% to 70% of children with psychiatric conditions.

If you think your child has a learning disorder, you should formally request testing through their school system. Schools are required to evaluate a child (age 3 to 21) if they’re suspected of having a disability that affects their learning or educational performance.


Diagnosis and Tests

How are learning disabilities diagnosed?

Caregivers and teachers typically suspect learning disabilities once a child is in school. Your child will need to go through special assessments and tests so that a professional can make a diagnosis. Your child’s pediatrician and a school psychologist or child psychologist will be involved in the process.

It’s important to note that a psychologist diagnoses a learning disorder. Your child’s school may identify a learning disability and then act accordingly to do an evaluation and develop a learning plan. The process for a psychological diagnosis and a legal identification per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are slightly different. But they typically involve a combination of:

  • Observations.
  • Interviews.
  • Assessments.
  • Medical and family history.
  • School reports.

You’ll work closely with your child’s school personnel and education specialists during this process.

Learning disability tests

Types of evaluations for learning disabilities — each of which use different assessments — or tests, include:

  • Medical evaluation: To start, your child’s pediatrician will do a physical exam and a neurological exam to make sure your child’s learning challenges aren’t due to an underlying medical condition. They may recommend certain tests, like blood tests or imaging tests.
  • Educational assessment and performance evaluation: Your child’s teacher(s) will observe their behavior in the classroom and assess their academic performance. They’ll evaluate your child’s reading, writing and math skills based on their grade level and provide notes.
  • Cognitive evaluation: This evaluation typically includes verbal and nonverbal intelligence (IQ) testing. Your child will see their school psychologist or a child psychologist for it. They may also evaluate your child’s preferred way of processing information — like visually or aurally, for example.
  • Psychological evaluation: This evaluation helps identify ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorders, depression and confidence issues. These frequently accompany — but are distinct from — learning disabilities. A child psychologist will assess your child’s attitude toward school, motivation level, peer relationships and self-confidence.
  • Neuropsychological assessment: This testing assesses how brain conditions may affect your child’s behavior and cognitive skills (how your child uses their brain). A neuropsychologist does this assessment. It’s particularly useful in children with known central nervous system injuries or illnesses for mapping areas of their brains that correspond to specific learning strengths and weaknesses.

Management and Treatment

How are learning disabilities managed?

People with learning disabilities need different or additional help learning. This help — or management — varies based on the type of learning disability and its severity. You and your child may work with several professionals to find the best learning plan for them. This team may include:

  • Educators.
  • Educational remediation specialists.
  • Psychologists.
  • Special education services.
  • Healthcare providers, like occupational and physical therapists.

In general, educational interventions fall into the following levels:

  • Accommodation: Your child has access to the mainstream education curriculum with supportive or assistive resources without changing the educational content.
  • Modification: Your child’s school adapts your child’s goals and objectives as well as provides services to reduce the effect of the learning disability. For example, your child may be able to orally give test answers instead of writing them.
  • Remediation: Your child’s school provides specific interventions to decrease the severity of the learning disability.

If your child qualifies for special education services, they’ll receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This personalized education plan:

  • Lists academic goals for your child.
  • Specifies the services your child will receive.
  • Lists the specialists who’ll work with your child.

Some children require specialized learning in only one area while they continue to attend regular classes. Other children may need separate, more intensive educational programs. As required by U.S. law, children with LDs should participate as much as possible in classes with their peers who don’t have LDs.

It may take time to find the best strategy for your child. Know that your diligence in helping your child is worth it.



Can I prevent learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities aren’t preventable, but they’re often manageable with different strategies. This is most beneficial if your child receives early intervention. You should:

  • Talk with a healthcare provider if you notice any early signs of learning disabilities.
  • Work with your child’s school to develop an individualized education plan (IEP).

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if my child has a learning disability?

Even though children don’t outgrow learning disabilities, they can learn to adapt and improve their skills. Children who receive early diagnoses and interventions are more likely to overcome challenges while maintaining a positive self-image.

They may also build on personal strengths that tend to come with learning disorders. For example, people with dyslexia are often especially creative. Children with learning disabilities can grow to become very productive and successful adults.

What are the complications of learning disabilities?

If your child has an LD, they may experience self-esteem issues or believe they aren’t intelligent. They also have a higher risk of developing mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.

Positive support from caregivers, teachers and friends can help your child overcome these obstacles. But don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional, as well.

How long do learning disabilities last?

Learning disabilities are lifelong. This means that adults have learning disabilities, too. Although children typically receive these diagnoses, some people don’t realize they have a learning disability until they’re adults.

Living With

How can I help my child if they have a learning disability?

It’s important to make sure your child receives help for their learning disability. This may look like:

  • Monitoring your child’s progress to make sure they’re making adequate improvements in skill development with their IEP. Tell school administrators if you don’t think their IEP is helping.
  • Fostering communication between outside specialists, school personnel and your child’s pediatrician.
  • Providing an atmosphere of encouragement and support at home.
  • Taking your child to see a mental health professional if their learning disability is causing them distress or they have behavioral concerns.
  • Taking care of yourself. Advocating for proper accommodations can be exhausting. Be sure to take care of your mental health and lean on loved ones for support.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

You want the best for your child. So it can be difficult to see them struggle in school. Know that learning disabilities are fairly common — and several interventions are available to address your child’s specific needs. Your child’s school personnel, psychologist and healthcare provider will be with you every step of the way.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 01/16/2024.

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