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Understanding Learning Disabilities

The term learning disabilities is used to describe a number of disorders that affect an individual’s ability to learn. These disorders can impact acquisition, organization, retention, and the understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. Learning disabilities are specific to a learning area which makes them different from intellectual disabilities. Learning disabilities are apparent in both academic and social areas of life.  

Learning disabilities occur when there is impairment in one or more psychological processes involved in learning. These include:

Phonological processing :- difficulty following and understanding instructions, lectures, or presentations (e.g., recognizing sounds as words)

Memory and Attention:- lots of effort is needed to focus or stay on task.  (e.g., understanding which parts of a lecture or lesson are the most important to remember)

Language Processing:- challenges in expressing thoughts through words (e.g., struggle to explain the way they feel through words)

Perceptual-motor Processing:-  ability to act upon what one sees or to represent what is seen or visualized through visual motor representation (e.g., having messy handwriting)

Visual-spatial Processing:- difficulty understanding physical relationships between objects (eg., not being to understand how the sun and solar system work together)

Planning or Organization:- time management and understanding how to organize their thoughts so they flow in a way that is understandable is tough (e.g., often losing things, messy notebooks, disorganized essays or stories)

Executive functioning:-  a challenge with higher level functioning like abstract reasoning, logical analysis, task switching and cognitive flexibility (e.g., difficulty organizing; trying to go on a road trip without any plan, difficulty being able to deal with a change in events)

People with learning disabilities are unique and experience impacts differently. Each person has a unique combination of areas of impairment. However, each person also has a unique combination of skills and strengths. People with learning disabilities have some areas they find challenging, but are able to excel in others. For example, being able to follow instructions when shown how, but struggle when verbally asked to complete a task. This demonstrates that the competency is the same; however, the information needs to be provided in a different way. This is an example of a phonological processing issue. 

The different types of learning disabilities include: 

  • Dyslexia (words, language)
  • Dyscalculia (math)
  • Dysgraphia (written/expressive writing)
  • Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder)
  • Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disability

Recognizing Learning Disabilities


The child experiences areas of need in reading, writing, spelling or understanding spoken language. Each individual experiences this differently but some common symptoms are letter reversal (d for b), word reversals (sit for bit), inversions (m for w), transpositions (felt for left), may confuse short words (using the word “at” instead of “to”), spelling difficulties (spelling the same word different ways on the same page).


The concepts of math are challenging for the child to grasp. Each individual experiences this differently but some symptoms are poor memory for numbers (learning to count), relating how numbers exist in our world (understanding patterns within math), measuring (unable to accurately grasp the concept of money).


Difficulty with expressing themselves through written word. Generally causes writing to be distorted or incorrect. Symptoms include issues with spelling, poor handwriting, using incorrect words (using “girl” for child) difficulty organizing letters or numbers on a line.

Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder)  

Impacts the ability to plan and performs various sensory and motor tasks. Symptoms can include difficulty with perception, poor balance and coordination, emotional and behavioural needs, and poor short-term memory. The impacts for a child could be difficulty performing simple motor tasks like waving good-bye to more complex tasks like brushing their teeth.

Auditory Processing Disorder

Difficulty understanding verbal directions because the brain does not fully organize the incoming information effectively. They find it challenging to recognize subtle differences in words such as like and light. The earlier this is detected the better for the child as it will have less impact on their speech and language development. Symptoms can include trouble following directions, low tolerance for loud noises, better performance when in a quiet situation, experiencing difficulty following conversations.  

Non-Verbal Learning Disability

The name can be misleading as children with this disability are highly verbal. The area of difficulty with this disability is in the non-verbal learning. These children are often very bright and can speak using words that are beyond their age. They often have excellent vocabulary. This affects the child’s ability to problem solve, understand space and time; and impacts their relationships with peers. Non-verbal learning disabilities are difficult to recognize, which makes getting an appropriate diagnosis a challenge.

These children are able to understand their words verbally so they can ask many questions. However, they have difficulty taking in information through other methods (e.g., pictures, novels, cartoons, etc.). Reading social cues, understanding written works, and poor sense of direction become areas of need for these children.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is responsible for higher level capabilities. People use it to complete activities such as paying attention, organizing, planning, strategizing, remembering details, and managing time and space.

A child living with a learning disability may also have weaknesses with their executive functioning. Their abilities within abstract reasoning, logical analysis, hypothesis testing and cognitive flexibility (their ability to switch between tasks, or make changes to fit certain situations) are impacted as well.

Managing Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities affect the way that children receive information. Their brain has difficulty organizing the information and putting it into an order that makes it is easy to retrieve and maintain the meaning intended. The challenge arises when children are placed in traditional learning settings. Children with learning disabilities require various learning methods because of the different ways in which their brain processes incoming information. When they are not given alternative ways to learn, the experience of children with learning disabilities is like going on a road trip without a map or destination.  

It is a myth that a learning disability can be resolved if a child simply tries harder. Learning disabilities occur in children because their brain processes information in different and unique ways.  Each child’s experience of learning disabilities differs and there is no one solution that works. A child will need to have services and supports in place that fit both their learning needs and personal interests. EVERY CHILD LIKES TO LEARN. It is the responsibility of the adults within the child’s life to find out how to make learning enjoyable.

Learning disabilities are not confined to the school. Learning disabilities impact a child in most aspects of life including socially. The most valuable tool in managing learning disabilities for a child is a parent who is engaged, an advocate, and able to find ways in which their child likes to learn. For example, if your child loves planes and has Dyscalculia; incorporating planes in learning basic math skills will help them stay interested. This does not replace the important educational and in home supports and services that your child will need to help them be as successful as possible. Many successful well known people have learning disabilities like Charles Schwab who is a famous CEO. It is important to remember your child’s abilities, work with their strengths, and nurture their interests.

Parenting a child with Learning Disabilities

Parenting a child with learning disabilities comes with unique challenges and triumphs. When looking at how this affects children within adoption there are many factors that need to be considered. Learning disabilities can impact many areas of learning and development. Understanding that each child with a learning disability is different and unique in both their needs and strengths is important. Exploring as many services and supports as possible is important when finding what works for a child because every child is different.  

A child with a learning disability may have challenges understanding adoption and their place within it. Transitions may be difficult as the child’s understanding of social cues, facial cues or other social constructs may be impacted. Making the child’s abilities and needs a priority and working with the child in ways that they can understand will allow for better successes. Parenting a child with a learning disability does not remove your ability to have a great social, emotional and affectionate relationship with your child. It just challenges you, as the parent to ensure your child always feels safe, valued and understood. It requires you to think in different and creative ways.  

The best support for your child is an amazing forever family. A family that understands the child’s needs and can advocate to have the right services and supports in place both in school and at home.  It will be the little things like meeting the teacher before the school year starts to describe what works for your child, which will allow your child’s transition into a new school year to be more pleasurable for them.   

Helpful links and resources for Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilitites Association of Ontario -

Ontario Council for Exceptional Children -

Provincial Parent Association Advisory Committee on Special Education Advisory Committees - 

Teaching LD - 

Ottawa Network for Education - 

Special Education Ontario -

Integration Action for Inclusion in Education and Community

International Dyslexia Association Ontario Branch


Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities (PACFOLD) -

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH) -

National Center for Learning Disabilities -

KidsHealth -

Children Support Solutions -