What Is a Learning Disability : Where does your child fit in?


What Is a Learning Disability?

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) DSM5 definition of a specific learning disability leaves out many disabilities that people think are learning disabilities. For example, ADHD, Autism spectrum disorders, communication disorders, etc. Within the APA’s Diagnosis Manual, specific learning disabilities diagnosis codes fall into the four broad categories below.

The new categories are designed to give doctors the freedom to diagnose individuals with learning disabilities based upon a broader set of characteristics. However, I think there is less clarity in knowing What Is a Learning Disability.

The broad categories cover the full range of mild, moderate, or severe learning disabilities within each of the four specific learning disability categories.

What Is a Learning Disability : Specific Learning Disabilities by Diagnosis

The APA criteria says a specific learning disorder diagnosis “requires persistent difficulties in reading, writing, arithmetic or mathematical reasoning skills during formal years of schooling. Current academic skills must be well below the average range of scores in culturally and linguistically appropriate tests of reading, writing, or mathematics. The individual’s difficulties must not be better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders and must significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living.” (See: Specific Learning Disorder Fact Sheets)

The diagnosis options doctors have available, as specified in the DSM5, are:

That’s it!  There is additional language in the DSM5 manual update document that says doctors can still use terms like dyslexia and dyscalculia in their diagnoses. However, the goal is to eliminate a tendency to exclude diagnosis based upon a single characteristic. (See the DSM5 Specific Learning Disorder Fact Sheets for additional explanation.)

The Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS) is a broad, catch-all category for children with notable learning difficulties. It’s for children whose disabilities affect education, but are not able to be put into some other category.

As example, if a student struggles with reading decoding, but does not have a deficit in phonemic awareness, the child can be diagnosed with a “Reading Disorder.” Previously, with a diagnosis of dyslexia, the diagnostic criteria specified a deficit in phonemic awareness as a defining characteristic.

Therefore, if a child had obvious reading struggles, he might not have been diagnosed with “dyslexia” under the prior diagnostic criteria. Now, the child could be diagnosed with a “Reading Disorder” as a specific learning disability.

A child with ADHD would nave a neuro-biological impairment that does not technically qualify as a learning disability. Similarly, Sensory Integration disorder would be caused by sensory issues, and would not technically be a learning disability either. However, it is clear both of these, and many other conditions, clearly affect a child’s learning.

IDEA’s Educational Definition of What Is a Learning Disability (SLD)

The Federal IDEA laws that govern educational provisioning specify a somewhat different definition a Specific Learning Disability. If your child is identified by your school as having a learning disability, your child’s learning disability will be categorized into one of eight specific learning disabilities.

IDEA Regulations, IDENTIFICATION OF SPECIFIC LEARNING DISABILITIES, say your IEP team may determine that your child has a specific learning disability, as defined in 34 CFR 300.8(c)(10), if:

“The child does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the following areas, when provided with learning experiences and instruction:

  • Oral expression
  • Listening comprehension
  • Written expression
  • Basic reading skills
  • Reading fluency skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mathematics calculation
  • Mathematics problem solving

A child may be found to have a specific learning disability when:

“The child does not make sufficient progress to meet age or State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the areas when using a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention;

“or the child exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, State-approved grade-level standards, or intellectual development, that is determined by the group to be relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability, using appropriate assessments,

“and the group determines that its findings are not primarily the result of:

  • A visual, hearing, or motor disability;
  • Mental retardation;
  • motional disturbance;
  • ultural factors;
  • environmental or economic disadvantage; or
  • Limited English proficiency.”

When you correlate the Educational definition of What Is a Learning Disability with the DSM5 definition, the three reading-based educational SLDs will fall in the “Reading Disorder” category.

The two math-based educational SLDs would fall in the DSM5 “Math Disorder” category. The Written Expression SLDs would fall into the same category in either case.

The Educational Specific Learning Disabilities of Oral Expression and Listening Comprehension would be likely to fall into the broad DSM5 category of Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS).

As parents, our focus is usually on getting our kids the help they need.  Professionals and Educators can call the learning disabilities by whatever specific name they’d like, but our goal is to help our kids learn! It doesn’t really matter all that much What Is a Learning Disability by precise definition as long as your child’s needs are identified and met.

The Problem with Specific Learning Disability “What Is a Learning Disability?” Definitions

The biggest frustration point for parents is when both professionals and parents can clearly see a child has a problem, but the child’s evaluation results don’t place the child into a nice little box.  The new broad DSM5 categories will allow more kids to be diagnosed with Specific Learning Disabilities, but the specificity needed for intervention may be lost in the translation.

What do I mean by that last sentence?

Using our prior example, if a child was clinically diagnosed with dyslexia and that had a requirement that the child have a deficit in phonological awareness, then remediation clearly requires teaching the child phonological awareness skills.

Now, if a child is diagnosed with a “Reading Disorder” or a Specific Learning Disability Not Otherwise Specified, the diagnosis could be based upon any number of neurological deficiencies that could be addressed.  However, the likelihood that the specific deficiencies will be fully communicated and addressed may diminish over time as educators find it easier to just say a child has a “Reading Disorder.”

What the Definition of “What Is a Learning Disability?” Means to YOU as a Parent

As a parent, no matter which box your child is placed in, whether broad or narrower, your goal must be to address each specific learning or cognitive disorder your child has.

If your child has a “Reading Disorder,” and his specific testing shows problems with working memory, processing speed, phonological awareness, as components of your child’s learning disability, then you MUST address each component of difficulty in order to bring about meaningful educational progress for your child.

Many of the neurological problems that cause specific learning disabilities can be strengthened with well-targeted programs and training.  Both working memory and processing speed can be improved using proven programs. Phonemic Awareness can be taught through programs written specifically for that purpose.

For each specific learning disability your child may be diagnosed with, you have options for meeting his needs, whether or not your child’s school thinks your child fits into their definition of a specific learning disability.

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