What are learning disabilities?
Learning disabilities are usually lifelong problems that affect someone’s ability to learn in one or more specific academic areas, such as reading, writing or maths. They are sometimes called learning difficulties.
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 and handwriting
- dyscalculia, which causes problems with maths
- dysphasia, which causes problems with speaking and understanding others’ speech
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.
A child’s difficulty in school does not always stem from a learning disability. However, if you think your child has a learning disability, it is important to get them assessed and provide support as early as you can.
What are the symptoms of learning disabilities?
If someone has a learning disability, they will struggle more in one or more areas of learning than would be expected for their level of intelligence. 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 are not 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 could be a learning disability.
What are the causes of learning disabilities?
Learning disabilities 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.
How are learning disabilities diagnosed?
Learning disabilities can be hard to diagnose unless the problem is severe. Often, they are not picked up until children are older, or until they become adults. Whatever the age, it is still important to seek help and get treatment.
If you think your child has a learning disability, the first step is to talk to their 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 seeing 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.
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How are learning disabilities treated?
A learning disability is not a disease, so it cannot be cured. People with learning disabilities need support to help them succeed at school and work. The earlier the child gets help, the greater their chances of success. This is called early intervention.
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.
You can also talk to your doctor about whether your child could benefit from a referral to a specialist, such as a paediatrician, occupational therapist or speech therapist.
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:
- National Disability Insurance Scheme or call 1800 800 110 for information about what support you may be entitled to
- Australia Dyslexia Association for information and support for dyslexia
- Services Australia for information about financial support
- Medicare for help with healthcare costs
- AUSPELD - Australian Federation of Specific Learning Difficulties (SPELD) Associations
- National Disability Gateway for help to find and access disability services across Australia.
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Last reviewed: May 2021