By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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If your child has a diagnosed or suspected learning disability, there are probably lots of things you’d like to know about it. Here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions about learning disabilities.

Pre-teen boy  with a puzzled expression reading a large book
 

Early signs and what to do

Understanding learning disabilities

Living and learning with learning disabilities

A learning disability is a serious and ongoing difficulty with one or more of the following areas of learning – reading, spelling, writing and maths. You can find out more in our article on learning disabilities.

What are some early signs that my child might have a learning disability?

Early signs of possible learning disabilities include difficulty with language, such as rhyming, or difficulty working with smaller sounds inside words, such as identifying the ‘k’ sound in the middle of ‘monkey’. Children might also have difficulty remembering lists of words, numbers, letters or concepts, such as a list of instructions you give all in one go. Your child might also show ongoing and significant problems with reading, spelling and maths.

But having some difficulties doesn’t automatically mean your child has a learning disability. Some children can just take longer than others to begin to learn literacy and maths skills.

At what age does a learning disability start to show?

Learning disabilities can usually be diagnosed by the time your child is 7-8 years old. Early signs of learning disabilities are often picked up in the first two years of school.

What should I do if I think my child has a learning disability?

If your child has ongoing and significant problems with reading, spelling or maths – even if your child has had a good start to his education – it might be useful to get a learning disabilities assessment. If you’re concerned, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s teacher as a first step. You might also like to talk to a health care professional such as a speech pathologist or psychologist about a formal assessment.

For more information about typical development in the early years of school, you might like to read our article on child development: 6-9 years.

Do learning disabilities run in families?

Learning disabilities can run in families. This means that parents, siblings, uncles and aunts might have similar problems to your child in regards to their reading, spelling or maths skills. If other members of your family have managed their learning disability in an active and effective way, they can be great role models for your child.

Are people who have learning disabilities often gifted?

People who have learning disabilities aren’t more likely to be gifted than other people. But learning disabilities happen to people with all sorts of abilities. Within the large group of people who have learning disabilities, there are some who are gifted in different ways. For example, some have mechanical, academic, sporting and creative abilities.

Do more boys than girls have learning disabilities?

Boys and girls are equally likely to have learning disabilities.

My child writes letters back to front. Does this mean my child has dyslexia?

Writing letters back to front in the early years is a normal developmental stage. It’s not always a sign of dyslexia. But it might be a concern if a child continues to reverse letters and numbers in the middle and later years of primary school.

My child has trouble reading. Does my child have a learning disability such as dyslexia?

On its own, trouble with reading doesn’t mean that a child definitely has a learning disability. There can be lots of reasons why a child has trouble reading, including a lack of opportunity to learn to read, or hearing or vision problems.

Can a learning disability be ‘cured’?

Learning disabilities are rarely entirely cured. But with time and support, many people with learning disabilities learn to improve their skills. The earlier the child gets expert help, the better the child’s chance of making good progress.

People with learning disabilities often manage well, particularly those who have learning disabilities that affect reading. It can sometimes be harder to improve spelling and maths skills, especially those that involve learning lists and tables of information. But there are ways around this, such as using specially designed predictive typing software.

Does using a computer help?

Computers can help children who have learning disabilities. There are different types of software that can help with word prediction, spell-checking, and changing text to speech and speech to text. These software programs can help children get information without needing to read printed pages. They can also help your child with writing.

Literacy and maths software can get your child motivated about learning and reinforce what your child learns at school.

Another bonus of computer use is that printed pages are neat and easy to read. This is especially useful because messy handwriting is often a part of learning disabilities.

How can I know whether a treatment or therapy I saw advertised will be useful?

Looking carefully and critically at any advertised treatments or therapies will help you work out whether to believe their claims. In particular, you can look to see whether the claims are backed up by reliable and solid scientific research. There is no cure for learning disability, despite what some ads say. Search out the evidence before committing your child to a program.

It’s a good idea to talk to teachers and other professionals, as well as non-profit organisations such as SPELD (Specific Learning Disabilities). These people should be able to give you reliable advice about worthwhile options.

Good literacy and maths teaching, a focus on building resilience, and appropriate technology will help your child.

What are the keys to success for people who have learning disabilities?

Successful people who have learning disabilities:

  • are self-aware – they know about their learning disability but don’t define themselves by it. They define themselves by their strengths
  • ask for help and know where and when to do so
  • have clear goals
  • are flexible and creative in finding ways around the difficulties of having a learning disability
  • keep trying, even when things are difficult
  • have good coping strategies to deal with emotions such as frustration
  • are ready to take control when faced with challenges
  • respond to problems by coming up with solutions, rather than being passive or getting angry.
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  • Last Updated 19-04-2011
  • Last Reviewed 11-05-2011
  • Acknowledgements

    Centre for Adolescent Health, The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne. The Centre for Adolescent Health wishes to acknowledge Dr Nola Firth for her contribution to this article.

  • Dyslexia Working Party (2010). Helping people with dyslexia: A national agenda [Report to Hon. Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services]. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from http://www.ldaustralia.org/dyslexia_action_agenda_1.doc.

    Firth, N., & Frydenberg, H. (2011). Success and dyslexia: sessions for coping in the upper primary years. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

    Firth, N. (2010). To assess resilience programs for children who have specific learning disabilities [Report to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia]. Retrieved August 20, 2010, from http://www.churchilltrust.com.au/fellows/detail/3340/nola+firth.

    Firth, N., Frydenberg, E., & Greaves, D. (2008). Perceived control and adaptive coping: Programs for adolescent students who have learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 31(3), 151-165.

    Kavale, K.A., Kauffman, J.M., et al. (2008). Response-to-intervention: Separating the rhetoric of self-congratulation from the reality of specific learning disability identification. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 31(3), 135-150.

    New Zealand Ministry of Education (2008). About dyslexia. Retrieved December 12, 2010, from http://literacyonline.tki.org.nz/content/download/15836/109968/file/About+Dyslexia.pdf.

    Raskind, M.H., Goldberg, R.J., Higgins, E.L., & Herman, K.L. (2002). Teaching ‘life success’ to students with LD: Lessons learned from a 20 year study. Intervention in School and Clinic, 37(4), 201-208.

    Rodis, P., Garrod, A., &. Boscardin, M.L. (2001). Learning disabilities and life stories. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

    Rose, J. (2009). Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties: An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children and Families. Retrieved January 24, 2010, from http://publications.education.gov.uk/default.aspx?PageFunction=productdetails&PageMode=publications&ProductId=DCSF-00659-2009.

    Shaywitz, S.E., Morris, R., & Shaywitz, B.A. (2008). The education of dyslexic children from childhood to young adulthood. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 451-475.

    Swanson, H.L., Harris, K.R., et al. (2003). Handbook of learning disabilities. New York: The Guilford Press.