Specific Learning Disorders

A Specific Learning Disorder, or SLD, is an umbrella term which includes impairment in reading, writing or maths, or a combination of the three.   The term 'dyslexia' is sometimes used to describe an SLD in reading and spelling, and 'dyscalculia' refers to an SLD in maths.   Dysgraphia, a less commonly heard term, refers to an impairment in writing.

Basic cognitive processing abilities are often impaired in individuals with SLD, especially phonological processing (the ability to differentiate the sounds we use for speech), orthographic processing (linking speech sounds to specific letters), working memory, and processing speed.   These weaknesses in turn impact the ease and efficiency of learning the symbols we use in everyday life, a necessity for learning sound-letter associations, or memorising maths facts.

The condition is best thought of as a continuum, which can range from mild to severe, rather than a distinct category, as there is no clear-cut demarcation or definitive diagnosis.

 For a diagnosis to be made, a number of criteria must be met.  For example, a key aspect of the disorder, which research suggests has a neurological basis, is that it is unexpected.  This means that achievement in the area of academic difficulty is markedly below what would be predicted when compared to the individual's general cognitive or oral language abilities (such as vocabulary knowledge, language comprehension and reasoning proficiency).  Indeed, it is not uncommon for those afflicted to have average or higher general intelligence. Secondly, as the name suggests, the impairment is specific to particular a academic area or areas, rather than a more generalised academic difficulty.      

 A diagnosis of SLD must also rule out the existence of other causative factors, such as intellectual disability, vision or hearing impairment, neurological or motor disorder, lack of education, lack of familiarity with English, or social disadvantage.  

In a nutshell people with SLDs generally have average or above intelligence, but struggle with the written word, or with understanding numbers.   Untreated, the affects can be far reaching.  Research points to a number of possible lifelong consequences, including lower rates of postsecondary education, higher rates of unemployment and under-employment, lower incomes, high levels of psychological distress and poorer overall mental health.  Targeted intervention and support however can significantly improve learning prognosis, and substantially lessen other, less direct, effects.  

The first step in providing needed academic and emotional support is to establish whether or not the learning difficulty is in fact the result of an SLD.

What are the common symptoms of SLDs?

What does a diagnostic assessment involve?