Learning Disabilities

How some people find it more difficult than others to process new information.

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability (LD) is a lifelong neurological condition that affects the way someone processes and learns information. This can make it harder to learn new skills. Understanding new concepts can also take more time and effort.

Unlike what some people may believe, having an LD is not just about intelligence. Simply scoring below 75 in intelligence tests – which indicates a significant limitation in intellectual functioning – will never lead to the diagnosis of an LD.

In fact, by definition, to be diagnosed with one, someone must have average or above-average intelligence – a great reminder that the full measure of someone’s potential cannot be gleaned from a single metric like IQ.

Different Types of Learning Disabilities


Dyslexia is the most common LD. It can affect people differently; some may struggle with reading comprehension while others have difficulty with spelling or writing.

Other forms of LDs include dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Dyscalculia affects the ability to understand and work with numbers, whereas dysgraphia impacts handwriting and fine motor skills, in turn hampering one’s ability to form letters, for example.

Besides these more commonly known conditions, there are also less well-known ones such as auditory processing disorder which affects the ability to process sound accurately; visual processing disorder which impairs the ability to interpret visual information; and nonverbal learning disability which impacts social skills.

Each condition has its own unique set of challenges. For example, those with auditory processing disorder may need extra help focusing on lectures or conversations due to difficulty filtering out background noise.

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In 1983, Howard Gardner revolutionized the way we think about learning and intelligence with his book, Frames of Mind.

Shaking up the established belief that there is a single intelligence that can be measured with one IQ test, Gardner proposed the concept of multiple intelligences – a recognition that there are many different ways of learning and knowing.

Starting out with six, eventually, nine distinct types of intelligence were identified: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential.

Gardner noted that our current educational system heavily favors language-based instruction and assessment. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t account for the fact that students learn in different ways and excel in distinct areas.

Recognizing that individuals with LDs may have strengths in areas beyond traditional measures of intelligence, such as music or art, Gardner argued that “The broad spectrum of students – and perhaps the society as a whole – would be better served if disciplines could be presented in a number of ways and learning could be assessed through a variety of means.”

His theory helped shift the understanding of LDs away from a deficit model which proposes a lack of intelligence or ability, and towards a strengths-based model that emphasizes someone’s unique abilities and potential.

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities

The diagnosis of an LD can be a complex process, but because it greatly impacts the support someone will receive, making the correct diagnosis is important.


For example, in many countries, children must meet certain criteria to receive special education services. This includes having difficulty with academic skills such as reading or math, despite receiving appropriate instruction. They must also have a cognitive ability, or IQ score, that falls within the average range.

Sometimes, neuropsychological testing may be used to check someone’s strengths and weaknesses in areas such as memory recall and problem solving. Other tests may measure how well someone performs on tasks related to specific subjects like reading or math.

It is also important to consider other factors such as family history and environmental influences when making a diagnosis. For example, children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience learning difficulties than those from higher-income households due to a lack of access to resources and educational opportunities.

The difference between ADHD and learning disabilities

ADHD and LDs are often confused. They can lead to similar challenges in school and work settings, but there are some key differences.

ADHD is characterized by symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention, while LDs refer to difficulties with specific skills like reading, writing, and math. For example, people with ADHD may have trouble focusing on tasks while those with learning disabilities may struggle to understand concepts even when paying close attention.


However, because ADHD affects executive functioning skills like working memory and attention, people with ADHD may also struggle with some aspects of learning. This can cause confusion and overlap between the two conditions.

It is a common misconception that stimulant medications can treat learning disabilities in the same way they treat ADHD. The truth is, stimulants have no impact on learning disabilities whatsoever.

Stimulants may help control attention-related symptoms in children with both ADHD and a learning disability, but simply medicating a child with a learning disability in the hopes of improving academic performance is a flawed approach that overlooks the condition’s complex nature.

The Role of Special Education

Special education refers to individualized educational services provided to students with disabilities.

This may involve additional support like extended time for tests, specialized instruction and repetition, visual aids, and assistive technology such as audiobooks or text-to-speech software. For example, text-to-speech software can help dyslexic students read texts aloud, while speech recognition software can enable individuals with motor impairments to type without using their hands.

While special education can be beneficial, it also has its challenges. One critique is that it can create a sense of isolation for students with disabilities who may be pulled out of mainstream classrooms for services. Additionally, the cost of special education can be a barrier for some families, and not all schools may have the resources to provide comprehensive services.

Besides school and academic challenges, individuals with learning disabilities may also experience social difficulties such as anxiety or depression due to their struggles at school or work. This should not be overlooked.

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