Learning disabilities and other barriers to learning

Article (adapted) from Learning Disabilities Association of America – https://ldaamerica.org. 


Learning disabilities [typically referred to as learning disorders in SA] are neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or maths.  They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organisation, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory, and attention.  It is important to realise that learning disabilities can affect an individual’s life beyond academics and can impact relationships with family, friends, and in adult workplaces.


Since difficulties with reading, writing and/or maths are recognisable problems during the school years, the signs and symptoms of learning disabilities are most often diagnosed during that time.  However, some individuals do not receive an evaluation until they are in post-secondary education or adults in the workforce.  Other individuals with learning disabilities may never receive an evaluation and go through life, never knowing why they have difficulties with academics and why they may be having problems in their jobs or in relationships with family and friends.

Generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. There often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as “hidden disabilities”: the person looks perfectly “normal” and seems to be a very bright and intelligent person, yet may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age.

A learning disability cannot be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong challenge. However, with appropriate support and intervention, people with learning disabilities can achieve success in school, at work, in relationships, and in the community.

NB: *Learning disabilities should not be confused with learning problems [or barriers to learning] which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.


Specific Learning Disabilities


Young female student expressing frustration while rereading, demonstrating symptoms of Dyslexia.Dyslexia

A specific learning disability that affects reading and related language-based processing skills. The severity can differ in each individual, but can affect reading fluency, decoding, reading comprehension, recall, writing, spelling, and sometimes speech, and can exist along with other related disorders. Click here for more information on Dyslexia.


Young femaile student having difficulty with math problem on chalkboard displaying symptoms of Dyscalculia.Dyscalculia

A specific learning disability that affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Individuals with this type of learning disability may also have poor comprehension of math symbols, may struggle with memorising and organising numbers, have difficulty telling time, or have trouble with counting. Click here for more information on Dyscalculia.


Student having difficulty writing while doing school work, expressing symptoms of Dysgraphia.Dysgraphia

A specific learning disability that affects a person’s handwriting ability and fine motor skills. Problems may include illegible handwriting, inconsistent spacing, poor spatial planning on paper, poor spelling, and difficulty composing writing, as well as thinking and writing at the same time. Click here for more information on Dysgraphia.


Young boy listening to a friend talking into his hear, demonstrating symptoms of Auditory Processing Disorder.Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

This is a condition that adversely affects how sound that travels unimpeded through the ear is processed or interpreted by the brain. Individuals with APD do not recognise subtle differences between sounds in words, even when the sounds are loud and clear enough to be heard. They can also find it difficult to tell where sounds are coming from, to make sense of the order of sounds, or to block out competing background noises. This is often confused with AD/HD, as the symptoms are similar. Click here for more information on APD.               


Little girl holding up toy blocks that spell "LEARN".Language Processing Disorder

A specific type of Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) in which there is difficulty attaching meaning to sound groups that form words, sentences and stories. While an APD affects the interpretation of all sounds coming into the brain, a Language Processing Disorder (LPD) relates only to the processing of language. LPD can affect expressive language and/or receptive language. Click here for more information on LPD.            


Young boy sitting alone holding his kneesNon-Verbal Learning Disabilities

A disorder which is usually characterised by a significant discrepancy between higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visual-spatial, and social skills. Typically, there is a difficulty with interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language, with possible poor coordination. Click here for more information on NVLD.


Young girl having difficulty painting displaying symptoms of Visual Perception/Visual Motor Deficit disorder.Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

A disorder that affects the cognitive understanding of information that a person sees, or the ability to coordinate the body to draw or copy. A characteristic seen in people with learning disabilities such as Dysgraphia or Non-verbal LD, it can result in missing subtle differences in shapes or printed letters, losing place frequently, struggles with cutting, holding pencil too tightly, or poor eye/hand coordination. Click here for more information on visual-perceptual and visual motor deficits.


Related disorders that can influence learning:


Distracted teenage student looking out of classroom window during school displaying symptoms of ADHD.ADHD

A neurological disorder that includes difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity. Although ADHD is not considered a learning disability, research indicates that from 30-50 percent of children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability, and that the two conditions can interact to make learning extremely challenging. Click here to learn more about ADHD.


Executive FunctioningYoung adult woman writing in her organizer

An inefficiency in the cognitive management systems of the brain that affects a variety of neuropsychological processes such as planning, organisation, strategising, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space. Although not a learning disability, different patterns of weakness in executive functioning are almost always seen in the learning profiles of individuals who have specific learning disabilities or ADHD. Click here to learn more about Executive Functioning difficulties.


Young child playing in children's ball pit.Dyspraxia

A disorder that is characterised by difficulty in muscle control, which causes problems with movement and coordination, language and speech, and can affect learning. Although not a learning disability, Dyspraxia often exists along with Dyslexia, Dyscalculia or ADHD. Click here to learn more about Dyspraxia.


Young man with string tied to finger trying to remember something.Memory

Three types of memory are important to learning. Working memory, short-term memory and long-term memory are used in the processing of both verbal and non-verbal information. If there are deficits in any or all of these types of memory, the ability to store and retrieve information required to carry out tasks can be impaired. Click here to learn more about memory challenges.


All of these challenges can be difficult to separate and to pinpoint the underlying concerns and implications for support. If you have concerns about your child’s learning ability, please make an appointment to speak to one of the psychologists at the BSU, by emailing bsu@bishops.org.za