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Sam was an energetic child, with an infectious giggle, an ever-present smile, and a ‘tall tale’ always at the tip of his tongue. His vivid and accurate stories astonished his mom, Nadia. She was sure he was a prodigy – but then, what mom isn’t? At four and a half, Sam struggled to learn letters and numbers. At six, Sam’s Grade 2 teacher became concerned about his reading and writing and suggested it may be a learning disability. Nadia’s heart dropped. She was confused and worried. Smart, bright, funny Sam—a learning disability?

Like Nadia, you may need to consider whether your child’s difficulties in school or social activities stem from a learning disability. And like Nadia, you’ll probably want to gather as much information as you can about learning disabilities and the possibility or reality of your child being diagnosed with one. This fact sheet provides you with an overview of learning disabilities and how they are diagnosed.

What are learning disabilities?

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) identifies a learning disability (LD) as any one of:

A variety of disorders that affect the acquisition, retention, understanding, organization or use of verbal and/or non-verbal information. These disorders result from impairments in one or more psychological processes related to learning, in combination with otherwise average abilities essential for thinking and reasoning. Learning disabilities are specific, not global impairments and as such are distinct from intellectual disabilities.

**-From the LDAC website at

Learning disabilities range in severity and can interfere with the development and use of:

  • Oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding)
  • Reading (e.g. decoding, comprehension)
  • Writing (e.g. spelling, written expression)
  • Mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving)

At a basic level, learning disabilities affect a person’s ability to listen, speak, read, spell, write, reason or perform arithmetic. Though they’re believed to be caused by problems in the central nervous system, learning disabilities do not include difficulties that are the result of physical or mental handicaps or emotional troubles. Environmental, cultural, and economic shortcomings also do not create LDs though they can worsen their effects.

Learning disabilities sometimes interfere with organizational skills, social perception and social interaction, though these may be symptoms of the primary LD, and not LDs in and of themselves.

What are the signs of learning disabilities in children?

These problems are common in children with learning disabilities:

    • Difficulty understanding or following instructions
    • Trouble remembering what someone has just told them
    • Poor performance in reading, spelling, writing or math
    • Problems telling right from left
    • Trouble reading words
    • Reading letters, numbers or words backwards
    • Difficulty with tasks like tying shoelaces or holding pencils
    • Losing homework and books often
    • Problems understanding time (e.g. concepts like yesterday, today or tomorrow)

** From The Hospital for Sick Children’s Centre for Health Information and Promotion

Considered life-long for most, learning disabilities’ effects are often subtle and take time to emerge. Parents, pediatricians, early childhood educators and teachers expect children to achieve developmental milestones. But some children with learning disabilities may miss these milestones as they begin pre-school, while for others, difficulties don’t surface until high school.

Unexpected, low academic achievement—especially if your intuition tells you your child should be doing significantly better—is probably the most obvious sign of a learning disability. Like Nadia, you know your child is smart, funny and bright. But as tasks become more complex, his/her ability to function within a structured classroom environment may not be on par with your understanding and expectations of your child’s capability.

Diagnosing a Learning Disability

If you or your child’s teacher suspect a learning disability, seek out a medical diagnosis. Your family physician or pediatrician can refer you to a learning disability specialist.

These specialists may be psychiatrists, psychologists, speech pathologists or other professionals who have a background in educational testing and diagnosing learning disabilities. Through standardized testing, the specialist assesses the child’s development levels and compares them to normal response averages. Several assessments can help uncover whether your child has a learning disability.

These include:

  • A physical examination—medical history and exam by a physician that may involve sight, hearing and speech tests
  • Academic testing – IQ and other academic/learning checks such as aptitude tests
  • Psychological and behavioural testing – evaluation/assessment of emotional, cognitive and behavioural problems which might also require neurological testing

If you suspect your child has a learning disability seek out support immediately. The earlier the diagnosis, the more quickly your child can get the support needed to rise to, and overcome, the challenge of a learning disability.

Content from the following Web sites was used in the preparation of this fact sheet:

Learning Disabilities Resource Centre

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC)

This information is provided for general informational purposes only. It should never replace consultation with a professional. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified person with any personal, medical, emotional or financial questions.


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