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Child & Adolescent Development: Overview
Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses

Symptoms of Specific Learning Disorder

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Specific Learning Disorder is diagnosed when there are difficulties learning and using academics skills for at least 6 months in one or more of the following areas:

  • Inaccurate or slow word reading - this can involve reading single words out loud incorrectly or reading them slowly and hesitantly, frequently guessing words because they aren't sure what it is, or having difficulty sounding out words.
  • Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read - in this category students may be able to accurate read the words, but they do not understand what they mean. They may be unable to track relationships that are being described or understand deeper meanings of the sentences and paragraphs beyond those of the individual words that are used.
  • Difficulties with spelling - the student may add, leave out or substitute letters in words.
  • Difficulties with written expression - the student has poor grammar and punctuation skills when writing, doesn't organize thoughts into paragraphs well, or writes ideas that are not clear.
  • Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts or calculation - the student is unable to do basic math facts (adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing), has to count on their fingers to come up with the answer, or gets lost in the middle of doing longer problems and is unable to solve the problem.
  • Difficulties with mathematical reasoning - the student has difficulty applying math concepts or procedures to solve problems.

In addition to one or more on the above areas being affected, a few other items are required for a diagnosis including:

  • The affected skills must be substantially below those expected for the child's age.
  • The issues need to cause significant problems with academic performance.
  • The problems begin during the school-age years, but may not become fully noticeable until academic demands become high, such as taking timed tests, completing long reports that have short deadlines, or very heavy homework levels.
  • The learning disabilities are not the result of other issues, such as intellectual disabilities, uncorrected visual or hearing problems, other mental or neurological disorders, or inadequate teaching in those academic areas.

The academic areas and subskills that can be diagnosed as impaired include:

  • Impairment in Reading - word reading accuracy; reading rate or fluency; reading comprehension.
  • Impairment in Written Expression - spelling accuracy; grammar and punctuation accuracy; clarity or organization of written expression
  • Impairment in Mathematics - number sense; memorization of arithmetic facts; accurate or fluent calculation; accurate math reasoning

Alternative Terms

  • Dyslexia is another term that can used to refer to learning difficulties around accurate word recognition, poor decoding of words being used, and poor spelling.
  • Dyscalculia is another term that is used to refer to a pattern of problems with processing numerical information, learning math facts, and doing accurate calculations.
  • When either of these terms is used, the psychologist should also note other areas that are affected that don't fall specifically in these categories. For example, a child diagnosed with dyscalculia may also have trouble with word reasoning, or a child with dyslexia might also have poor math reasoning.

The 3 severity levels that can be diagnosed include:

  • Mild - some difficulties exist in one or two academic areas, but are mild enough that the student may be able to compensate or function well with accommodations or support services.
  • Moderate - difficulties in one or more academic areas and the individual is unlikely to become proficient without periods of intensive and specialized teaching.
  • Severe - severe difficulties are affecting several academic areas and the individual is unlikely to learn those skills without ongoing intensive individualized and specialized teaching for most of the school years. Even with accommodations or services, the individual may not be able to complete all tasks efficiently.

Criteria summarized from:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.