Over the past several years, our society has seen a rapid rise in the number of school-age children diagnosed with some form of educational-impacting disability.  When I was a kid in the 1980s, I could count on one hand the number of my classmates who were dyslexic.  And I’d never even heard of ADHD until I was in high school in the early 1990s.

Part of the rise in diagnoses can certainly be attributed to more knowledge of these conditions.  Clinicians have a much better understanding of neurocognitive science in general and can therefore identify issues much better now than they could even 20 years ago.  But with the rise in diagnoses also comes a lot of misinformation as to what these diagnoses actually are.

A question I frequently get from parents is:  “Does my child have a learning disorder?”

This is a great question and one that actually has an easy answer.  Before we can get to that answer, however, we must first understand what a Learning Disorder actually is (and possibly what it isn’t).

Learning Disorder Defined

Clinicians mainly refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is now in its fifth edition, when considering a wide-variety of diagnoses.  The DSM-V, as it’s commonly known, is exactly 947 pages long and contains 157 possible diagnoses.  Of these 157 diagnoses, only a handful are regularly assigned to the vast majority of students in the primary and secondary grades.

One of the most commonly assigned diagnoses for school-age children in the 2020s is “Specific Learning Disorder.”  The DSM-V is very detailed when laying out the criteria for a Specific Learning Disorder as well:

  1. “Difficulties learning and using academic skills . . . despite the provision of interventions that target those difficulties.”
  2. “The affected academic skills are substantially and quantifiably below those expected.”
  3. “The learning difficulties begin during school-age years.”
  4. “The learning difficulties are not better accounted for by . . . other [disorders or conditions].”

When it comes to these particular diagnoses, there are three types:

  • Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in reading
  • Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in written expression
  • Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in mathematics

Based on these stringent criteria, a Specific Learning Disorder can only present in reading, writing, and math.  There are no other diagnosable conditions or academic difficulties that would qualify as a “Learning Disorder.”

So, when considering if your child has a “Learning Disorder,” remember that Learning Disorders only pertain to significant difficulties in reading, writing, or math.

Dyslexia?  Dysgraphia?  Dyscalculia?

When the DSM switched over from the fourth edition to the fifth edition, it elected to call these disorders “Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in . . .” rather than the traditional dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

However, the DSM-V makes a clear note that the terms “dyslexia,” “dysgraphia,” and “dyscalculia” can be used as “alternative term[s]” when describing the child’s Specific Learning Disorder.  But, keep in mind, the official diagnosis will always be “Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in . . .”

Nevertheless, once assigned a diagnosis of Specific Learning Disorder, it is appropriate (and even beneficial) to refer to it by the alternative name.  Doing so simplifies the language and removes the stigma of having a “disorder.”

What about ADHD?

Probably the most commonly diagnosed condition for school-age children is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Interestingly, despite its growing prevalence, only about 5% of children truly experience ADHD.

Although ADHD can certainly make learning more difficult, it is not considered a “Learning Disorder.”  Rather, ADHD is a separate disorder that inhibits an individual’s attention and/or hyperactivity, which, in turn, can inhibit the child’s learning capacity.

What Other Conditions Could It Be?

The DSM-V is very good at not only explaining what a particular disorder is but also what other diagnoses may be at play if a Specific Learning Disorder is ruled out.  If your child is struggling with learning but a Specific Learning Disorder is ruled out, the DSM-V suggests these alternative diagnoses:

  • Normal variations in academic attainment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Learning difficulties due to neurological or sensory disorders
  • Neurocognitive disorders
  • ADHD
  • Psychotic disorders

As you can see, the list of possible explanations for academic difficulties goes beyond a Learning Disorder.  That’s why it is imperative that parents seek an evaluation by a trained specialist if they suspect significant learning difficulties for their child.  Identifying the source of the difficulties is critical to the treatment, as each disorder has its own treatment plan.

So the big take away is:

A “Learning Disorder” only pertains to significant reading, writing, and math difficulties associated with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

All other disorders are just that:  other disorders.

If you have specific questions about your child and his or her learning style, please don’t hesitate to contact me!