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Learning disabilities

5-minute read

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are when someone has unexpected and persistent difficulties in specific areas of achievement such as reading, writing or maths. If you think your child has a learning disability, it’s important to get them assessed and provide support as early as you can.

Learning disabilities are usually lifelong problems that affect someone’s ability to learn in one or more specific academic areas. They are sometimes called learning difficulties and include dyslexia, other specific learning disorders and language disorders. However, a child’s difficulty in school doesn’t always stem from a learning disability.

A learning disability is different from an intellectual disability, which affects every aspect of how the brain learns and understands. Learning disabilities affect only a specific area of learning.

They can be present at birth — for example, if a person has a medical, physical or neurological (brain) condition that makes it harder for them to process certain pieces of information. Sometimes learning disabilities are caused by external influences like someone’s experiences or the way they grow up. They can run in families.

In Australia, up to 1 in every 10 people has a learning disability. The most common ones are:

  • dyslexia, which causes problems with reading and writing — about 8 in 10 people with a learning disability have dyslexia
  • dysgraphia, which causes problems with spelling, handwriting and writing
  • dyscalculia, which causes problems with maths
  • dysphasia, which causes problems with speaking and understanding others’ speech

A learning disability is not a disease, so it doesn't require a cure and, with support, someone with a learning disability can succeed both at school and in work. Early intervention — getting a child help as soon as possible — will increase their chances of success.

What are the symptoms of learning disabilities?

If someone has a learning disability, they will struggle in one or more areas of learning compared with their intellectual ability in other areas. They will be behind other people of their age and background in that area of learning.

Some common signs that someone has a learning disability include:

  • they find it very hard to spell
  • they dislike reading
  • they can understand and talk about things, but seem unable to write about them
  • their handwriting is very messy
  • they have trouble with rhyming or hearing sounds in words
  • they find it hard to remember words, numbers, letters or instructions
  • they dislike school or aren’t confident about their abilities at school
  • as well as academic problems, they may have time management, organisation and social difficulties

These symptoms apply to many children. But if time goes on and a child is continuing to experience problems with their learning, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor about getting a diagnosis.

How are learning disabilities diagnosed?

Often cases of learning disability are not picked up in the early years of school despite the importance of early identification and intervention. Learning disabilities can be hard to diagnose unless the problem is severe. Older children and adults also have learning disabilities. It’s still important to seek help and get treatment, whatever the age.

If you think your child has a learning disability, the first step is to talk to your child’s teacher. They will know how your child is progressing.

If you are still worried, you can ask the school to do a formal assessment. This will usually involve an educational psychologist. Alternatively, you can pay for an assessment privately. You can contact the AUSPELD association in your state or territory for more information on getting an assessment for your child or yourself.

You can also talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a specialist, such as a paediatrician, might also help or whether your child would benefit from occupational therapy or speech therapy.

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How are learning disabilities treated?

The treatment of learning disabilities depends on which disability the child has. They will need special help from a trained teacher to overcome their problems with learning.

Sometimes school teachers are not trained to teach children with learning disabilities, or the school may not recognise your child’s learning disability. You may need to get extra support for your child — for example, by finding a qualified tutor outside school, or investing in technology to support your child’s learning.

Learning disabilities are recognised as disabilities under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act. That means your child has the same rights to education as any other child. The school should also make reasonable adjustments to support your child in their learning.

Living with learning disabilities

Children with learning disabilities often develop problems with their self-esteem and are at greater risk of dropping out of school. However, if your child has a learning disability, there are ways you can support them.

Try to be as positive about your child as possible and focus on their strengths to build their resilience. You can praise them for non-academic achievements and encourage them to try new things and develop new skills.

Resources and support

There is a range of support for people with disabilities in Australia:

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Last reviewed: May 2019


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