Understanding Learning Disabilities, Difficulties, and Differences

Lots of people, particularly parents and teachers, have asked the question: what are learning disabilities? In many cases, without realizing that part of the problem is the very question they are asking. Disability isn’t the right way to describe most – if any – of the most common challenges which can affect how, and how effectively, a person can learn.

What are learning disabilities?

Introduction to Learning Disabilities

The term learning disability refers to individuals who suffer from a significant level of cognitive impairment. It does not refer to specific learning difficulties or differences, of which more later.

Everyone is different, but a person with a learning disability will be someone who has a far lower than average intellectual ability.

They will be less able than an average person to learn and may require significant support from their family, school, and specialist health and care workers, to function in their daily life.

True learning disabilities have a number of causes, including:

• Genetic: such as trichromosomal disorders, including Down’s; Fragile X syndrome; or other conditions.
• Brain damage: possibly due to birth problems, traumatic injury, or alcohol or drug use by a pregnant mother.

Individuals who suffer from a learning disability will often also face other challenges in their lives such as a physical disability, or social and emotional problems.

However, these should not be conflated with the issues at hand when we discuss what learning disabilities are since they do not affect an individual’s cognitive abilities.

Learning disabilities cannot be cured. And, because they affect the basic ability of the brain to carry out cognitive tasks, there is only limited potential for individuals to learn and obtain qualifications.

Educators will work within the abilities of the person with learning disabilities to ensure that they learn basic skills and are able to live a fulfilling adult life.

So, having considered what learning disabilities are, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what they are not.

Difficulty and difference – what isn’t a learning disability?

There are many specific difficulties and differences which can affect the way an individual learns, how they take in and perceive information, and where their individual talents lay.

It’s important to remember that none of the things in this section are disabilities since they do not affect the cognitive or intellectual ability of a person.

Albert Einstein was one of the most intellectually able people ever to have lived, despite his dyslexia. All of the specific learning differences listed here are just that: differences in the way that people learn. With the right teaching, there’s no reason why a person with one – or more than one – of these differences cannot achieve just as high as anyone else.

Specific Learning Differences

Specific Learning Differences

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

Also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder, or speech and language difficulties, this is a label given to individuals who have no problem hearing sounds, but rather are less able to interpret speech and language.

They have perfect hearing, but it is the brain’s ability to make sense of the differences between words and sounds which is impeded.

People with this condition may also have problems organizing themselves or their studies, processing instructions, and following routines. They will benefit from receiving information in small chunks, in writing, as well as being allowed additional time to process what they are told.


This is a specific learning difficulty which affects an individual’s ability to understand numbers. People with dyscalculia will have great difficulty in mathematics, science, and other numerical subjects.

This isn’t because they are unable to understand the concepts, it is because their brains find it far more difficult than most to interpret and process numerical information.


An umbrella term for difficulties in the physical act of writing. People with dysgraphia are often those who have poor fine motor skills in general, and so find it difficult – in some cases impossible – to produce legible handwriting. With the advent of modern technology, people with dysgraphia benefit greatly from the opportunity to use laptops – possibly with dictation software – to complete their work.


Probably the best known specific learning difference, dyslexia is about far more than simply the ability to read and write.

Dyslexics will usually have great difficulty with anything relating to words and letters; reading, writing, and spelling will often be very challenging.

They are likely also to struggle in other areas of life which others find easy, such as following a daily routine and organizing themselves and their belongings for school and work.

However, it’s important to remember that dyslexia – like other specific learning differences – isn’t simply a list of challenges.

Many dyslexics have talents in other areas such as drama, art, photography, and other creative fields. Increasingly, it is also becoming clear that the ability of dyslexics to ‘see the big picture’ and their unique perspective is a major asset in many fields.

Related disorders

There are still more challenges which a person may face in their life which are neither learning disabilities or specific learning differences because they do not, directly, affect a person’s ability to learn, or the way they learn.

Nevertheless, the effects of these conditions can have a serious negative impact on learning and are often confused with what are learning disabilities, so we will include them here.


ADHD is a medical condition, the direct cause of which is a reduction in the level of dopamine present in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is essential in the way the brain functions. Lower levels affect the brain’s ability to focus, concentrate, and control impulses.

It’s now understood that individuals can have a genetic predisposition to ADHD, but that the extent to which they experience the symptoms and challenges of the condition is also affected by their environment and upbringing.

People with ADHD often have difficulty concentrating, can become hyper-focused on a specific task, find it challenging to control impulsive behaviors, can be ‘hyperactive’, and are less able than others to express and process emotions. All of these things (can) have a serious impact on a person’s ability to learn, yet people with ADHD are no less intellectually able than their peers.

The right teaching, the right medication, and ensuring that people with ADHD are included in mainstream schooling and activities alongside their peers are the best ways to overcome the condition.


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