The Ins and Outs of Learning Disabilities

Young children coloring or writing in school classroomLearning disabilities (LD) is a broader term in the United States to describe various types of neurologically-based processing problems. These processing disorders can interfere with learning basic life functioning skills such as reading, writing, or mathematics. They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time management and abstract reasoning.

The types of LD are identified by the specific processing disorder and can be categorized within one or more of the following four areas. They might relate to getting information into the brain (Input), making sense of this information (Integration), storing and later retrieving this information (Memory), or getting this information back out (Output).


Information is primarily brought into the brain through the eyes (visual perception) and ears (auditory perception). An individual might have difficulty in one or both areas.

Auditory Perception

Also called Receptive Language, the individual might have difficulty distinguishing subtle differences in sound (called phonemes) or might have difficulty distinguishing individual phonemes as quickly as normal. Either problem can result in difficulty processing and understanding what is said. Individuals might have difficulty with what is called auditory figure-ground. They have difficulty identifying what sound(s) to listen to when there is more than one sound.

Visual Perception

One might have difficulty distinguishing subtle differences in shapes (called graphemes). They might rotate or reverse letters or numbers (d, b, p, q, 6, 9); thus misreading the symbol. Some might have a figure-ground problem, confusing what figure(s) to focus on from the page covered with many words and lines. They might skip words, skip lines, or read the same line twice. Others might have difficulty blending information from both eyes to have depth perception. They might misjudge depth or distance, bumping into things or having difficulty with tasks where this information is needed to tell the hands or body what to do. If there is difficulty with visual perception, there could be problems with tasks that require eye-hand coordination (visual motor skills) such as catching a ball, doing a puzzle, or picking up a glass.


Once information is recorded in the brain (input), three tasks must be carried out in order to make sense or integrate this information. First, the information must be placed in the right order or sequenced. Then, the information must be understood beyond the literal meaning, abstraction. Finally, each unit of information must be integrated into complete thoughts or concepts.


The individual might have difficulty learning information in the proper sequence. Thus, he might get math sequences wrong, have difficulty remembering sequences such as the months of the year, the alphabet, or the times table. Or, she might write a report with all of the important facts but not in the proper order.


A person might have difficulty inferring the meaning of individual words or concepts. Jokes, idioms, or puns are often misinterpreted or not understood. He might have problems with words that have different meanings depending on how they are used. For example, “the dog” refers to a pet. “You dog” is an insult.


An individual might have difficulty organizing materials: losing, forgetting, or misplacing papers, notebooks, or homework assignments. She might have difficulty organizing her environment, such as her bedroom. Some might have problems organizing time. They have difficulty with projects due at a certain time or with being on time. The act of organizing over time is referred to as Executive Function.


Three types of memory are important to learning. “Working memory” refers to the ability to hold on to pieces of information until the pieces blend into a full thought or concept. For example, reading each word until the end of a sentence or paragraph and then understanding the full content. “Short-term memory” is the active process of storing and retaining information for a limited period of time. The information is temporarily available but not yet stored for long-term retention. “Long-term memory” refers to information that has been stored and that is available over a long period of time. Individuals might have difficulty with auditory memory or visual memory.

An example of working memory is when an individual reads a sentence and holds on to the information while continuing to read the next portion of the text. By the end of the paragraph, he pulls together the meaning of the paragraph to complete the task. An example of short-term memory is when the individual continues to read the full chapter, studies the content and retains the information long enough to retrieve it during an exam or other form of evaluation. An example of long-term memory is when the meaningful connections and associations are made resulting in the ability to retrieve the information over a longer period of time. By making personal, world and/or textual connections the information is likely to be integrated into the individual’s greater body of knowledge.


Information is communicated by means of words (language output) or though muscle activity such as writing, drawing, gesturing (motor output). An individual might have a language disability (also called expressive language disability) or a motor disability.

Language Disability

It is possible to think of language output as being spontaneous or on demand. Spontaneous means that the person initiates the conversation. Thoughts have been organized and words found before speaking. Demand language means that one is asked a question or asked to explain something. Now, she must organize his thoughts, find the right words, and speak at the same time. Most people with a language disability have little difficulty with spontaneous language. However, in a demand situation, the same person might struggle to organize her thoughts or to find the right words.

Motor Disability

One might have difficulty coordinating teams of small muscles, called a fine motor disability. He might have problems with coloring, cutting, writing, buttoning, or tying shoes. Others might have difficulty coordinating teams of large muscles, called a gross motor disability. She is awkward when running or jumping.

Each individual will have his or her unique pattern of LD. This pattern might cluster around specific common difficulties. For example, the pattern might primarily reflect a problem with language processing: auditory perception, auditory sequencing/abstraction/organization, auditory memory, and a language disability. Or the problem might be more in the visual input to motor output areas. Some people with LD will have a mixture of both.

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    I can not take a true/false test
    I can not do a a/ b/c/d test
    I know the answer
    I can say the answer
    But i can not circle the correct answer
    A scan trone test is implsible for me
    If i have to fill in dot or colr in the circle
    I mess up
    What is my problem
    I think brain
    What is the name of my issue
    How can i work on this at home
    Who do i go to
    Eye specialist
    Nero psychologist
    What rehab will help me
    Site i can use online
    I really have trouble with this

  2. John Stedman says

    Hi Tracey,
    I hear your Frustration and can relate to your pain. My son is a 17 year old who has been promoted through the grades with an IEP that has been failing him. He reads at barely a first grade level and is probably doing math at a 3rd grade level. Last year he was getting picked on in a wood carving class and picked up a wood carving knife and got suspended for a year. this year he went back and we have just moved and he put 2 box cutters in his pocket along with a knife his older brother has and he got caught with the three and is facing another year suspension, and he just started a vocational program, and i don’t know what we are going to do for options. He was repeating 10th grade this year and i don’t even know if they are going to let him go back next year. In the meantime, he still can’t read and needs vocational training. I don;t know what we are going to do and the first meeting we can get isn’t til the 29th of September and today is the 16th.

  3. Tracey Culp says

    After seeing 2 pediatricians ,5 psychologists, neurologist, geneticist 5 intervention specialists, I still cannot get a diagnosis for my 16 year old daughter. She was born at 29.5 weeks,spent 2 months in nicu. 3 years of preschool and has been in a special education classroom for all of her school years. She has been delayed for all her milestones. She reads on a 3rd grade level,2nd grade math. She lacks social skills. She repeats he same question atleast 30 times a day. She struggles to complete a task at hand.
    after 16 years of seeing professionals, there still is no diagnosis for her disability. She has received speech, Ot,Pt…through her elementary years but has tested out of all 3.
    If anyone can help me find a diagnosis for my daughter, please send me any and all information available. I want to help her become a full functioning adult.

    Thank you,
    Tracey Culp. MALVERN, OHIO

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