Boy sitting in class, looking deep in thoughtlearning difficulty (also referred to as a learning disability) can be described as an issue with the brain's ability to process information. Individuals who have a learning difficulty may not learn in the same way or as quickly as their peers, and they might find certain aspects of learning, such as the development of basic skills, to be challenging.

Because learning difficulties cannot be cured, their effects may impact an individual's performance throughout life: academically, in the workplace, and in relationships and daily life. Intervention and support, which may be supplemented by counseling or other mental health care services, can help an individual with a learning difficulty to achieve success. 

What Are Learning Difficulties?

Approximately 4 million children and teenagers have a learning difficulty, and many of them cope with more than one type of difficulty. Learning difficulties, which are neurological challenges, affect the way the brain receives, processes, stores, and analyzes information. Because a learning difficulty often affects an individual's ability to develop reading, writing, and math skills, a learning difficulty is typically recognized and diagnosed while an individual is in school. However, some of those affected by a learning difficulty may not have it discovered or diagnosed until they are in college or after they have joined the workforce. Others never have their condition diagnosed and may continue to experience difficulty processing information as they progress through life. 

Learning difficulties indicate an individual's need for alternative learning methods. They are not indicative of intelligence level and are not the same as intellectual difficulties—learning challenges that result from sensory handicaps; developmental delays; or cultural, economic, or environmental disadvantages. 

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While some learning difficulties are mild, others may have a severe impact on an individual's academic performance. However, behavioral teachings tailored specifically to the type of difficulty can help an individual develop strategies to address and work with a particular challenge, and intervention can be of significant benefit. Simply having a learning difficulty does not mean an individual will be unable to succeed academically or hold an intellectually demanding position.

Possible Causes of Learning Difficulties

It is not clear what causes learning difficulties, but researchers believe genetic influences, brain development, and environmental effects may all be likely to have some impact on their development. 

While learning difficulties often appear in families, researchers are uncertain whether this is due to genetic causes or if this recurrence appears because children typically learn from and model their parents. Brain development before and after birth might also have an impact on the development of learning difficulties, and children who were born prematurely, had a low birth weight, or who sustained a head injury may be more likely to have a learning difficulty. Environmental effects such as toxins and poor nutrition in early childhood are also considered to be potential factors in the development of a learning difficulty.

A young girl using a tablet and working with a tutor

Types of Learning Difficulties

A learning difficulty might often be termed a "hidden disability." A person challenged by a learning difficulty is generally of average or above average intelligence, and many are able to hide the fact that certain aspects of academic learning give them issue for years, leaving these issues unaddressed until high school or later. The difficulty arises in the gap between the individual's potential for achievement and ability to achieve, which is often hampered by a difficulty in receiving or processing information.

Learning difficulties can be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal learning difficulties affect one's ability to read, write, or otherwise process spoken or written words, while nonverbal learning challenges can make it harder for an individual to process visual information or master abstract concepts like fractions. Some learning difficulties can also make it difficult for an individual to focus: At least 20% of those with learning difficulties have a condition that impacts the ability to focus or concentrate.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual classifies learning difficulties under the diagnosis of "Specific Learning Disorder," differentiating between conditions marked by impairment in reading, mathematics, or written expression. This diagnosis occurs more often in males than in females. 

The Learning Disabilities Association of America lists these specific learning difficulties:

  • DyslexiaA condition that can affect reading fluency and comprehension, writing, spelling, speech, and recall. Dyslexia might occur along with other related conditions and is also known as a language-based learning disability. 
  • Dysgraphia: An individual with dysgraphia might find it difficult to write legibly, space words consistently, spell, compose, think and write at the same time, or plan spatially (on paper). Specifically, this condition affects handwriting and other fine motor skills. 
  • Dyscalculia: This condition may have an effect on one's ability to develop math skills, understand numbers, and learn math-based facts. It can be difficult for individuals with dyscalculia to comprehend math symbols, organize or memorize numbers, tell time, and count. 
  • Auditory processing disorder (central auditory processing disorder): Individuals with this condition may have difficulty recognizing the differences between sounds, understanding the order of sounds, recognizing where sounds have come from, or separating sounds from background noise. 
  • Language processing disorder: This condition, a type of APD, makes it difficult for individuals to give meaning to sound groups in order to form words and sentences. It relates to the processing of both expressive and receptive language. 
  • Nonverbal learning difficulties: These typically make it difficult for individuals to interpret facial expressions and body language. Visual-spatial, motor, and social skills may all be affected. 
  • Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit: Those with dysgraphia or a nonverbal learning difficulty might also have a visual perceptual/visual motor deficit, which can impact the way a person understands visual information, the ability to draw and copy, hand/eye coordination, and the ability to follow along in text or on paper.

Attention deficit hyperactivity is not considered a learning difficulty, but research shows between 30% and 50% of children have both ADHD and a specific learning difficulty. When these two conditions occur together, learning can become even more challenging. 

How Learning and Intellectual Difficulties Differ

An intellectual difficulty, listed in the DSM under intellectual disability, is characterized by significant limitations to intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior with onset before age 18. Generally, an IQ test score below 75 can be said to indicate a limitation to intellectual function. With an intellectual difficulty, adaptive behavior—conceptual, social, and practical skills—may also be limited. 

An individual with a learning difficulty usually does not experience these same limitations. Those with learning difficulties may often exhibit above-average intelligence, as determined by an IQ test, and they may have developed strategies on their own to either hide or cope with a learning difficulty.

Though neither intellectual nor learning difficulties can be cured, awareness and a variety of supportive techniques can enhance and improve the condition of an individual with either difficulty. 

Therapy and Support for Learning Difficulties

An individual diagnosed with a learning disability may find the diagnosis difficult to cope with, as might that person's family. When learning issues have been present for some time, the person diagnosed may find the diagnosis to be a relief, especially when the diagnosis occurs later in life. However, one might fear becoming labeled or worry that plans for the future and potential careers may be impacted. 

Parents may worry that a learning disability will prevent their child from succeeding in school, but this is not necessarily the case. Teachers, mental health professionals, and specialized professionals are frequently able to work with students who have a learning difficulty or other academic concerns. These professionals can help to identify particular areas of difficulty and develop specialized learning plans and strategies, such as an IEP (individualized education program), in order to adjust learning and education strategies to best fit that student's strengths and accommodate for areas of weakness. When a child's needs cannot be adequately addressed in the original classroom, a child may be placed in a different classroom—for all or part of the school day—to receive specialized instruction, often on an individual level. 

Coping with the challenges of a learning issue can be difficult. Children and teens may experience anger, frustration, anxiety, or stress as a result of the difficulty. They may become frustrated when they study extensively but receive low test scores; experience anger and stress when it is difficult to understand an assignment, or become anxious at the beginning of each new school year. These emotional issues can often compound the issue and may worsen it, but speaking about these and other emotional concerns to a counselor or therapist can be helpful. A therapist can also help individuals understand that although learning disabilities are lifelong, many methods of help and support are available. A child can also learn effective coping mechanisms to manage the difficulty and any resulting emotional issues. 

Occupational therapy can be helpful to children who experience difficulty with motor skills, while educational therapists work with school-aged individuals to improve skills in reading, writing, and math. Speech therapists work with children who have language-based or reading comprehension issues and can help them improve their ability to understand and communicate in social situations. Solution-focused counseling may be appropriate for older children and teens who are aware of their difficulties, as a solution-focused therapist will be able to support youth as they address a difficulty and help them determine what might be working for them and what could be improved upon. Children and adults may also do well in therapy groups or support groups, and play therapy can help young children learn interaction skills, which may occasionally be lacking in the presence of a learning difficulty. 

Counseling can also be helpful when those with a learning difficulty feel shy, anxious, or otherwise find it challenging to express themselves to others. Because emotional distress can occur as a result, talking through these anxieties in therapy may prove beneficial. 

Case Examples

  • Dyslexia in third-grade child: Farook, 8, is brought to a specialist who focuses on children who have dyslexia. Diagnosed with the condition the year before, he is currently having trouble keeping up in class. His teacher has reported that he is not achieving at the same level as his classmates and that he may need to be held back a year. His parents are worried his learning difficulty might negatively affect his entire life and prevent opportunities he might otherwise have access to. The specialist assures them that dyslexia does not necessarily bar success. He tells Farook's parents there are many different techniques that can help children with dyslexia to achieve in the classroom, and they begin to work together to identify what will work best for Farook. The specialist also refers Farook and his parents to a support group for parents of children with dyslexia. Meeting with other parents and hearing how their children cope with the challenges of dyslexia help Farook's parents gain more confidence about his future. After a few meetings with the specialist, Farook finds it less challenging to keep up in the classroom, and his teacher also reports improvement. 

  • Hiding a learning difficulty: Marisol, 12, is referred to the school guidance counselor after she is caught copying another student's math homework. Her teacher reports that she has suspected Marisol has been cheating for some time, because her homework is nearly always correct but her test scores are consistently low. Marisol admits she has been cheating in math but will not give a reason why. The counselor looks at Marisol's record and notices that, while her grades are good overall, she appears to have struggled with math for years. She asks Marisol to complete some math problems in front of her. Marisol has a hard time doing so, and the counselor tells her she believes she may have the learning disability dyscalculia. During a meeting with Marisol's parents the next day, the counselor gives them information on specialists who can confirm that Marisol has a learning difficulty and discusses with them some steps they can take to help Marisol succeed in the classroom. The specialist confirms dyscalculia. The school helps Marisol connect with a tutor who is trained to help students with dyscalculia, and within a few weeks, her math work shows improvement. 


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