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Learning disabilities

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Learning disabilities affect how you learn in a specific area, such as reading or writing.
  • People with learning disabilities do not have an intellectual disability.
  • People with learning disabilities often have a family member with learning difficulties.
  • Learning disabilities are caused by a neurodevelopmental condition (the way your brain has developed).

What are learning disabilities?

The terms 'learning differences', 'learning difficulties' and 'learning disabilities' are often used to mean the same thing. However, there are differences between these terms.

  • Learning differences — are the different ways and speeds at which people learn.
  • Learning difficulties — are things other than learning differences or disabilities that may affect someone's ability to learn. These things can include not going to school and poor teaching.
  • Learning disabilities — are usually specific learning disorders and do not respond to typical interventions.

People with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. They do not have an intellectual disability.

Learning disabilities are lifelong problems that affect how you learn in a specific area:

  • dyslexia — specific learning disorder with impairment in reading
  • dysgraphia — specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression
  • dyscalculia — specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics

A specific learning disorder can affect how you take in, remember, understand or express information.

In Australia, up to 1 in every 10 people has a learning disability.

What are the symptoms of learning disabilities?

If you have a learning disability, you do not process information as well as someone without a learning disability.

Often there's a gap between your potential and what you achieve at school.

You may have a family member with learning difficulties.

As well as academic problems, you may have time management, organisation and social difficulties.

To find out more about the symptoms of learning disabilities, visit healthdirect's dyslexia page.

What causes a learning disability?

If you have a learning disability, you may struggle to achieve at school. This is due to a neurodevelopmental condition (the way your brain has developed).

This can be caused by:

  • genetic factors
  • cognitive factors
  • environmental factors

How are learning disabilities diagnosed?

If you think your child has a learning disability, it's important to get them assessed. The earlier your child gets help, the greater their chances of success. This is called early intervention.

The first step is to talk to their teacher — they will know how your child is progressing. A child's difficulty in school does not always stem from a learning disability.

While your child's teacher may screen for learning difficulties, to get a diagnosis you need to see a specialist.

Usually, this is a psychologist who specialises in the identification of specific learning disorders (often called an educational psychologist). It's important that you see a professional who is qualified to use the tools needed to make a diagnosis.

Before a diagnosis can be made, you must have had at least 6 months of intervention. The intervention focusses on improving your skills.

Contact the AUSPELD association for more information on getting an assessment for you or your child.

When should I see my doctor?

You can talk with your doctor to see if your child may benefit from a referral to:

If your doctor refers your child to an allied health provider, you may be able to get a Medicare rebate.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How are learning disabilities treated?

A learning disability is not a disease, and it cannot be cured. People with learning disabilities need support to help them succeed at school and work.

The treatment of learning disabilities depends on the type of disability your child has. They will need special help from a trained professional that targets their area of need.

This may be:

  • at school
  • tutoring outside of school

There are many intervention programs that you can use. Some of these are free and others cost money.

Whichever program you choose, it's important that it is:

  • based on current research evidence
  • supported by independent reviews (not just by the program manufacturer)

Auspeld's resource 'Understanding learning difficulties; a practical guide for parents', has a list of evidence-based phonics programs.

School adjustments

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.

You may find that electronic devices can help support your child's learning, such as:

  • reading pens
  • text to speech
  • electronic spell checkers
  • educational apps

Can learning disabilities be prevented?

Learning disabilities cannot be prevented.

Complications of learning disabilities

People with a learning disability in one area are more likely to have difficulties in other areas of learning. For instance, people with dyslexia may also have difficulties with:

  • attention
  • organisational skills

People with learning disabilities also often have processing weaknesses in:

  • phonological processing — the use of the sounds to process spoken and written language
  • orthographic processing — the ability to understand and recognise writing conventions (spelling rules, letter patterns, capitalisation, hyphenation and punctuation)
  • working memory — the ability to hold and use information in your mind

It's important to remember that learning disabilities are life-long disabilities.

Low self-esteem

People with learning disabilities can develop problems with their self-esteem.

If your child has a learning disability, there are ways you can support them. Try to encourage and focus on your child's strengths. This helps to build their resilience.

Other ways that you can help to develop positive self-esteem in your child are:

  • Help them feel special and appreciated.
  • Help them to develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Do not make judgemental comments.
  • Be empathetic — acknowledge when they are having difficulty and work together to think about solutions.
  • Offer choices — this gives them a sense of control over their life.
  • Do not compare to siblings — instead highlight the strengths of each member of the family.
  • Highlight your child's strengths.
  • Give children opportunities to help.
  • Have realistic expectations and goals for your child.
  • Help your child understand the nature of their learning disability.

Resources and support

If you're concerned about your child, you can use Auspeld's free Next Steps Screening Tool.

Auspeld also have a resource called 'Understanding learning difficulties; a practical guide for parents', which you can download for free.

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

You can learn more about the Disability Discrimination Act here.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

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