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Understanding Learning Disorders/Disabilities

Although the terms ‘disorder or disability’ may continue to carry some stigma, we prefer to reframe and support learning differences and exceptionalities from a strength-based point of view. This is extremely important as the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada estimates that 1 out of 10 Canadians is living with a learning disorder/disability.

In 2011, the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was updated which changed the diagnosis of learning disabilities to specific learning disorders. Although this is the terminology most often now used by psychologists when completing assessments, both learning disorders and learning disabilities are used interchangeably. Learning disorders/disabilities can only be diagnosed for school-aged children by a registered psychologist using a combination of specialized assessments, observations, interviews, family history, and school reports.

Jane C., Grade 9

What a learning disorder/disability is NOT:

A learning disorder/disability has nothing to do with a person’s physical ability.

A learning disorder/disability does not mean that a person is incapable of learning.

A learning disorder/disability does not mean that a person is lazy.

A learning disorder/disability does not mean that a person is emotionally unwell.

A learning disorder/disability is not a social or behavioural problem, although social and behavioural issues may arise due to struggles with learning.

Types of Learning Disorders/Disabilities

Specific learning disorder(s) are neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the acquisition, organization, retention, and/or understanding or use of verbal and nonverbal information. This is, regardless of the individual demonstrating at least average intelligence in the areas of thinking and/or reasoning. Therefore, learning disorders/disabilities are distinct from global learning delays or deficits. As a result of these differences in how the individual receives and processes information, a disorder/disability may be identified in one or more of the following areas:

Reading (Dyslexia) – difficulty in reading (decoding words/word reading) and understanding the meaning of what is read (reading comprehension)
Writing (Dysgraphia) – difficulty in putting thoughts onto paper (written expression). Problems can include difficulties with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and/or handwriting.
Mathematics (Dyscalculia) – difficulty in learning number-related concepts or using the symbols and functions to perform math calculations. These problems can include difficulties with number sense, memorizing mathematical facts, mathematical calculations, mathematical reasoning, and problem-solving.

Executive Functioning Difficulties

Of those with learning disorders/disabilities, up to 80 percent of individuals have a reading disorder (dyslexia). One-third of individuals with learning disorders/disabilities are estimated to also have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which impacts a child’s development of key life skills, known as executive function skills.

Students with executive functioning difficulties may exhibit the following:

Can appear easily distracted and/or does not seem to listen when spoken to i.e., seems to be elsewhere.
May struggle with paying close attention to details and/or work so fast that they make frequent careless errors.
May have difficulty with impulse control and blurt out or have difficulty taking turns.
May miss some or all of the instructions for completing tasks or activities.
Organization or time-management may be problematic and interfere with their readiness to learn.
May avoid tasks that require sustained mental effort.
Frequently misplaces items needed for learning and/or daily life.
Could appear as if they are always “on the go” and may struggle to stay seated.

Learning disorders/disabilities, without support, can lead to additional problems throughout a person’s life beyond the classroom. Individuals with learning disorders/disabilities can also experience problems with managing social and peer relationships, increased anxiety, and can lead to lower self-esteem. However, once recognized and understood, all individuals with learning disorders/disabilities can and do succeed when they are provided with specific and specialized programming that supports how they learn best.

If you have questions about specific learning disorders/disabilities, please contact us.


Xavier A., Grade 12

Support for Learning Disability

If your child has a learning disability, we will help them learn and grow.

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