What Are Learning Disabilities?

Learning Disabilities are not intelligence problems – often people with learning disabilities have an IQ within the normal range, and sometimes they may be intellectually gifted. Learning disabilities are disorders that can affect someone’s ability to process, retain and use verbal or nonverbal information.

Learning disabilities are impairments in one or more of the processes we use to perceive, think, remember or learn, including; phonological or visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and planning and decision-making. Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with:

  • Listening, speaking, understanding;
  • Reading (recognizing words, decoding, being able to sound words out, and understanding what words and sentences mean);
  • Writing (spelling and expressing thoughts); and
  • Mathematics (computing, problem solving).

They may also affect organizational skills, social perception, social interaction and perspective.
Learning disabilities are life-long. Caused by problems in the nervous system or injuries that change the way the brain works, they may co-exist with other conditions such as attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions.

Learning disabilities can make a child’s daily life very difficult – days may be filled with frustration, stress, and low self-esteem. Children cannot overcome learning disabilities just by paying more attention, trying harder, or being more motivated. An early diagnosis and timely, specialized assessments and interventions give children the best chance of success in school and in life. Interventions must be appropriate for each individual's learning disability, but may include:

  • Instruction about specific skills;
  • Strategies to accommodate specific disabilities;
  • Strategies to compensate for missing skills; and
  • Self-advocacy skills.

Learning disability symptoms that appear in preschool:

  • Delayed understanding or use of spoken language
  • Difficulty understanding simple instructions
  • Long pauses when naming objects or colours
  • Little awareness of or interest in books
  • Difficulty colouring or drawing
  • Short attention span

Learning disability symptoms that appear in school-age children.

  • Difficulty understanding and following instructions
  • Trouble remembering what someone has just said
  • Failure to succeed at reading, spelling, writing and/or math
  • Difficulty distinguishing ‘right’ and ‘left’
  • Difficulty identifying words, or a tendency to reverse letters, numbers or words (confusing ‘b’ with ‘d’, ‘18’ with ‘81’ or ‘on’ with ‘no’)
  • Lack of motor coordination (walking, sports, drawing, etc.)
  • Frequently losing or misplacing homework, schoolbooks or other items
  • Difficulty understanding the concept of time.

Below are some specific things to look for if your school-aged child is having difficulties and you think they may have a learning disability. A formal diagnosis of a learning disability involves testing, history taking and observation by a trained specialist. The first step is to talk with your child’s classroom teacher.

Auditory Disabilities

  • Doesn't listen in class
  • Doesn't remember what he is told, has trouble following instructions.
  • Has a limited speaking and/or listening vocabulary
  • Can't discriminate between similar sounds
  • Mispronounces words or has trouble sounding words out
  • Mistakes one word for another because they mean the same thing; e.g. puppy - dog
  • Mistakes one word for another because it is visually similar
  • Remembers better what he sees

Visual Disabilities

  • Reverses letters when reading or writing
  • Reads slowly and sounds out words that ought to be sight words
  • Substitutes words that are visually similar but disrupt the meaning; e.g. horse - house
  • Loses his or her place, or omits words when reading
  • Has difficulty copying from the board
  • Makes spelling errors that sound the same as the right word
  • Can't remember what he has seen
  • Remembers better what he has heard

Oral Language Disabilities

  • Doesn’t speak in complete sentences
  • Has an immature vocabulary
  • Can't find the right words to express a thought
  • Dislikes taking part in class discussions
  • Doesn’t understand what he has read
  • Uses incorrect verb tenses
  • Mispronounces words
  • Sentences seem "mixed up"
  • Uses gestures rather than words

Written Language Disabilities

  • Has poor writing posture
  • Written work is untidy
  • The sequence of movements used to form letters is incorrect
  • Beyond grade three, is still reversing letters
  • Letters vary in size and wander off the lines
  • Has trouble copying from the board
  • Is slow to complete written work
  • Can't seem to express ideas in writing in a logical or intelligible manner

Motor Coordination

  • Doesn’t do well in sports
  • Seems clumsy
  • Often drops things
  • Has poor balance
  • Has poor eye-hand coordination for small tasks like cutting or writing
  • Art work is immature


  • Can't tell time
  • Has trouble judging time spans such as bedtime, birthday
  • Does badly on timed tests or assignments
  • Can't plan ahead
  • Gets lost
  • Confuses directions; north, south, left, right
  • Has difficulty comparing sizes and/or distances


Some learning disabilities have more to do with a child’s ability to pay attention than they do with learning.


  • Acts impulsively - acts first, thinks later
  • Is always on the move
  • Behavior is different from day to day
  • Is disruptive in class
  • Has a short attention span


  • Attention often seems to wander
  • Daydreams
  • Makes comments that are off topic
  • Starts to do a task before listening to directions

There are many resources to help you help your child. Here are a few you may want to connect with:

Learning Disabilities Association, South Vancouver Island Chapter

1524 Fort Street
Victoria, B.C. V8S 5J2

Learning Disabilities Association of British Columbia

c/o LDA of Vancouver
3292 E. Broadway
Vancouver, B.C. V5M 1Z8
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada

323 Chapel Street, Suite 200
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7H2
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders Canada


International Dyslexia Association


CH. A.D.D – Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders