How to tell if your child has a learning disability


Learning disorders affect at least one in 10 children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Developing an awareness of the more common types of learning disorders and their symptoms can help parents ensure their children receive the help they need as soon as possible.

Auditory processing disorder

This is a condition in which children do not understand specific sounds in words; this interferes with their understanding of spoken language. They can also have trouble telling what direction sound is coming from. Symptoms of this disorder include problems with:

  • Understanding and remembering language-related tasks
  • Processing thoughts and explaining them
  • Spelling and pronunciation of similar-sounding words
  • Interpreting figurative language such as similes and metaphors
  • Sifting through background noise
  • Comprehension of rapid or complex speech


This disorder affects children’s ability to understand numbers and math. Symptoms of this condition include difficulty with:

  • Understanding math symbols and counting
  • Solving math equations and understanding fractions
  • Memorizing and organizing numbers
  • Telling time and handling money
  • Sequencing events and recognizing patterns
  • The concept of time, including days, weeks and months


Dysgraphia affects children’s handwriting and fine motor skills. Signs and symptoms of this disorder can include:

  • Poor handwriting, both printing and cursive
  • Using a mix of print and cursive, upper and lower case
  • Irregular spacing between letters and words
  • Difficulty spelling and leaving words unfinished
  • Trouble thinking and writing at the same time
  • An unusual grip of a pencil or pen


This learning disorder affects reading and language-processing skills. Signs of dyslexia include:

  • Reading slowly or with difficulty
  • Problems understanding the order of letters
  • Poor reading comprehension
  • Trouble spelling and remembering words
  • Difficulty with writing and illegible handwriting
  • Substituting one word for another


Recommended treatments, including special education and tutoring, depend on the type of learning disability.

For example, children with auditory processing disorders may benefit from using written handouts and visual cues and signals when given oral instructions. For children with dyscalculia, treatment strategies may include the use of graph paper and diagrams to illustrate math problems. Music is another useful approach to understanding math.

Using wide-ruled paper, pencil grips and oral exams may help children with dysgraphia, while several structured literacy programs are available to manage dyslexia. The earlier an intervention occurs in a child’s academic career, the more successful it is likely to be.

Where to get help

Testing for learning disorders is often available through your child’s school. Educational testing or a neuropsychological assessment can help identify specific academic and cognitive problems. It can also identify a better learning style for your child.

If the school is unable to perform this testing, a child psychologist or psychiatrist can help. For more information on diagnosing and treating learning disorders, contact the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA or the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

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