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The Challenge of Diagnosing Learning Disability

by Roz Wright, Psy.D.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five Americans is learning disabled. Learning disabilities are neurobiological disorders that affect one's ability to read, write, speak, or compute math. Learning disability can also impair social skills. Learning disabilities can be lifelong conditions that, in some cases, affect many parts of a person's life: early development, school, work, daily routines, family life, and sometimes even friendships and play. In some peopleŚchildren or adultsŚmany overlapping learning disabilities may be apparent. Other people may have a single, isolated learning problem that has little impact on other areas of their lives.

Types of Learning Disability

There are three basic types of learning disabilities:

Reading Disorders affect accuracy, speed or comprehension of reading material. In order for a reading disorder to be diagnosed, an individual's reading achievement (as measured by individually administered standardized tests) must be substantially below what would be expected given the individual's age, intelligence, and education.

Mathematics Disorders often affect academic achievement and daily functioning involving tasks that require mathematical abilities. People with this type of disorder may have difficulty recognizing or reading numbers, copying numbers correctly or counting objects. Similar to reading disorders, a mathematics disorder can only be diagnosed if an individual's mathematical abilities are significantly below what would be expected given the individual's age, intelligence, and education.

Written Expression Disorders interfere with academic achievement and with daily activities that require writing skills. Individuals with this disorder may have extremely poor handwriting, excessive spelling errors, and/or poor grammar and punctuation. Like other types of learning disabilities, these difficulties must be beyond what would be expected given other factors in a person's life. The disorder is not due to a simple lack of education but to the brain's impaired ability to process certain kinds of information.

Until recently, it was not widely acknowledged that learning disabilities influence the lives of adults as well as children, especially those adults whose conditions were not diagnosed during early school years. However, many adults live with the effects of a learning disability without knowing it. Adults should be evaluated in a manner related to their age, experience, and career objectives when a learning disability is suspected. This type of thorough evaluation helps the person who may have a learning disability to overcome his or her difficulties through the design and implementation of specific learning strategies.

For either the child or the adult, intervention as early as possible is extremely important when a learning disability is suspected. Appropriate interventions help to avoid a lifetime of difficulties that may include low self-esteem as well as academic and social problems. Early intervention in the case of a child can significantly enhance the child's school experience.

Below are some common characteristics of youngsters at risk of having a learning disability:

  • Poor coordination and depth-perception
  • Distractibility
  • Short attention-span
  • Impulsivity
  • Hyperactivity
  • Perseveration (doing the same thing over in the same way)
  • Delayed speech
  • Limited vocabulary
  • Inappropriate use of words
  • Difficulty remembering what is heard
  • Aversion to being touched or cuddled
  • Very low or very high pain-threshold
  • Overreaction to noise
  • Difficulty following simple directions

Thorough psychodiagnostic assessment can determine whether a child (or an adult) has a learning disability. In conjunction with psychodiagnostic assessment, specific recommendations can be made to assist the individual in overcoming the challenges presented by his or her specific learning disability.

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a specific type of learning disability related to reading. People diagnosed with dyslexia usually have average to above average intelligence. The reading problems caused by dyslexia are not merely the result of emotional problems, lack of motivation, poor teaching, mental retardation, vision problems, or hearing deficits.

Although the cause of dyslexia is unknown, research indicates that dyslexia is likely inherited and may occur in several members of a family. Recent research also suggests that many children who have difficulty learning early reading skills also have problems hearing individual sounds in words, analyzing whole words into parts, and blending sounds into words.

Reading and teaching methods have been developed to assist people with this type of learning disability. In order to select the appropriate method for an individual, it is necessary to obtain detailed information about his or her specific strengths and weaknesses and the nature of the reading difficulty, itself.

The most common symptom of dyslexia is the tendency to reverse or mis-sequence letters within words when reading or writing. Other signs of dyslexia may include

  • Problems learning to translate printed words into spoken words
  • Problems with word identification and/or reading comprehension
  • Difficulties perceiving and/or pronouncing words
  • Difficulties understanding spoken language
  • Trouble recalling known words
  • Problems with handwriting
  • Spelling difficulties
  • Difficulties with mathematics

Individuals who exhibit signs of a learning disability such as dyslexia can be greatly assisted by receiving a comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation conducted by a psychologist. This type of assessment includes an evaluation of all areas of learning and learning processes. This enables the psychologist to determine whether additional learning disabilities are contributing to the person's difficulties and allows the evaluator to make specific recommendations regarding teaching and reading methods.

Bay Area Psychological Testing Associates, BAPTA, specializes in psychoeducational assessment and the evaluation of learning disabilities. If you would like more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our highly specialized, licensed psychologists, please contact us.


Bay Area Psychological Testing Associates
1057 MacArthur Blvd. #206
San Leandro, CA 94577
Telephone (415) 296-8081

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