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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jennifer McGinness

What are Learning Disorders and How are They Diagnosed?

Learning disorders encompass much more than difficulty in school or trouble with grades. Learning disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders that cause impairment in retention and utilization of academic skills. More specifically, learning disorders are the result of brain differences that cause difficulties obtaining and implementing reading, writing, or math skills. Additionally, learning disorders persist despite targeted interventions such as tutoring, special education classes, or academic accommodations. Learning disorders are named Specific Learning Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and are accompanied by specifiers indicating the type of impairment (i.e., reading, writing, or math). Additional specifiers of “mild,” “moderate,” or “severe” are added to the diagnosis of Specific Learning Disorder to indicate the severity of challenges. Specific Learning Disorders are commonly called “learning differences” in school settings and may be referred to as “learning disabilities” in legal and educational settings. Furthermore, Specific Learning Disorders are not indicative of low intellectual ability. In contrast, those with learning disorders often have the intellectual capacity for academic achievement but struggle to learn the skills necessary to perform at a level comparable to typically developing peers. 

The three types of Specific Learning Disorders are outlined below:


A Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in reading (dyslexia) is characterized by difficulties with recognizing words, reading words aloud, reading slowly, and comprehending what was read. Brain differences in individuals with Specific Learning Disorders with impairment in reading include abnormalities in the left temporoparietal cortex and the left occipitotemporal cortex (Saini et al., 2023). The left temporoparietal cortex is involved in understanding, processing, and comprehending written and spoken language. Similarly, the left occipitotemporal cortex, the location of the brain’s Visual Word Form Area, is essential to word recognition and the use of sounds to form and understand language (Kronbichler and Kronbichler, 2018). 

Areas of difficulty may include one or more of the following:

  • Word reading accuracy 

  • Assigning correct sounds to letters 

  • Word recognition 

  • Sounding out words 

  • Reading rate or fluency 

  • Reading at a typical pace 

  • Reading whole words as expected 

  • Reading Comprehension

  • Recalling, understanding, and conceptualizing what was read 


A Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in written expression (dysgraphia) is categorized by difficulties with handwriting, spelling, and overall difficulty expressing thoughts through writing. Differences in the brain’s premotor cortex and parietal cortex may contribute to dysgraphia (Saini et al., 2023). The premotor cortex is responsible for planning movements such as fine motor movements necessary for handwriting. The parietal cortex is involved in integration of sensory information needed to execute these movements. 

Areas of impairment may include one or more of the following:

  • Spelling accuracy 

  • Legibility 

  • Remembering shapes of letters

  • Remembering spelling rules

  • Grammar and punctuation accuracy

  • Recalling and implementing grammar and punctuation rules

  • Clarity or organization of written expression 

  • Putting thoughts into writing 

  • Paragraph organization 


A specific Learning Disorder with impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia) includes difficulties with processing numerical information, learning mathematical facts, and performing calculations. Brain differences in the intraparietal sulcus are indicated in Specific Learning Disorders with impairment in mathematics. The intraparietal sulcus is primarily involved in perceptual-motor skills and visual attention, but also plays a role in  processing numerical and mathematical processing (Saini et al., 2023).  

Areas of difficulty may include one or more of the following: 

  • Number sense 

  • Mental math 

  • Solving problems in multiple ways 

  • Understanding how math concepts relate to one another

  • Memorization of arithmetic facts

  • Completing multiplication tables

  • Remembering symbols and their meanings

  • Accurate or fluent calculation 

  • Applying mathematical rules and principles from memory 

  • Accurate math reasoning 

  • Understanding word problems 

How are Learning Disorders Diagnosed?

Discrepancy between intellectual ability and academic performance is one indicator that a child may be struggling with a learning disorder. Typically, learning disorders are diagnosed by comparing measures of intellectual intelligence (e.g., Wechsler Intelligence Scales) to measures of academic achievement. Learning disorders are unrelated to intellectual ability and therefore, children with learning disorders may have average or above-average IQs. If a learning disorder is suspected, overall measures of academic achievement are compared to the child’s ability to perform timed academic tasks. Those with learning disorders often struggle to apply academic knowledge when time is limited, even if they can complete academic tasks as expected with unlimited time. Appropriately, many children with learning disorders receive academic accommodations that include additional time or double time to complete academic tasks such as standardized tests.  

It is important to note that learning disorders are not the only instances where discrepancies between intellectual functioning and academic performance occur. Therefore, it is imperative that those suspected of having learning disorders seek comprehensive psychoeducational evaluations to rule-out other concerns that may interfere with academic performance. For example, children with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also have average or above-average intellectual abilities but struggle in school due to difficulties with organization, focus, and effort. In contrast, those with learning disorders are often able to successfully organize academic materials and remain seated during academic instruction. However, kids with learning disorders may demonstrate difficulty focusing due to inability to “keep up” with lectures or fully grasp basic concepts before moving on to more difficult ones. Furthermore, those with ADHD often experience impairment in executive functioning across multiple settings while those with learning disorders experience difficulties solely related to academic achievement. Additionally, children who experience depression or anxiety may struggle with academic achievement despite average or above-average intellectual functioning. More specifically, anxiety and mood disorders are often accompanied by symptoms such as concentration difficulties, trouble sleeping, and lack of motivation, which often impair academic functioning. In contrast to kids who experience difficulty in school due to learning disorders, anxiety, mood disorders, or ADHD, those with intellectual disabilities lack the cognitive abilities necessary to perform academic tasks at a typical level. 

How Can Parents Help?

Watching your child struggle with academic difficulties can be extremely challenging. Parents and kids may become frustrated with school-related tasks, feel hopeless about academics, or want to give up. Luckily, many schools offer resources and accommodations for students with learning disorders and other mental health concerns. The first step is often connecting with a school counselor to determine what options and resources are available to your child. Additionally, seeking help outside of the school setting can be beneficial in ensuring that your child receiving individualized attention from mental health care providers and tutors. For additional help staying calm and focused when your child is struggling with schoolwork, visit my post Helping Kids with Homework.

If your child is struggling in school or you suspect a learning disorder, speaking with a therapist is a great place to start! A therapist will be able to direct you to comprehensive psychological testing and therapy options. 


At Balanced Minds Psychology  & Wellness we specialize in assisting young adults, teens, and children with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile.  If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation, either over telehealth or in person!


For additional information about Specific Learning Disorders, visit the following:



Kronbichler, L., & Kronbichler, M. (2018). The importance of the left occipitotemporal

cortex in developmental dyslexia. Current Developmental Disorders Reports, 5(1), 1–8.

Saini, S. S., Kumar, K., & Anand, A. (2023). Unveiling the Neurobiology of Specific Learning

Disorders: Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of neurosciences, 30(4),


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