In Australia it is likely that two to three children in each classroom will experience problems with learning. Many adults in various types of employment may also struggle with difficulties in reading, writing, spelling or maths. For individuals with a specific learning disability, these problems in learning cannot be explained by low intellectual ability or by a person's lack of education, or visual or hearing impairments. Each individual experiencing a learning disability is unique and will present with varying degrees of difficulty.

What is a specific learning disability?

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A specific learning disability can affect how individuals learn in a variety of ways including how they take in, remember, understand or express information. A specific learning disability may be defined as problems people encounter in learning that affect achievement and daily life skills. The most common forms of learning disability are in reading and spelling, but they may also be found in other areas of functioning including spoken language and mathematics. Individuals can present with a specific difficulty in one or more areas and have average or above average performance in other areas. For example, a child who has a specific difficulty in reading and spelling may perform well in mathematics. However, for others there may be several overlapping areas of difficulty.

Why does a specific learning disability occur?

At this stage no one can say definitely why some people experience a learning disability and it is possible that there are multiple and varied causes. There may be a genetic component to some learning disabilities and there is now considerable evidence suggesting that certain parts of the brain may not be functioning normally.

What signs suggest that someone might have a specific learning disability?

Most commonly, either a parent or teacher first suspects a learning difficulty when a child is in the early years of primary school. However, there may be some signs of difficulty much earlier in development, especially if the learning disability affects spoken language. Children are expected to reach certain "milestones" of development such as the first word, the first step, and so on. The first sign of a learning disability may be noticed by observing delays in the child's skill development around language, attention and learning in the early years. For example, children may show difficulties in following directions, or may have a short attention span or memory problems.

Learning disabilities are not as obvious to others as physical disabilities. In addition, individuals with learning disabilities can become very good at covering up their difficulties so they are not apparent to others. As a result, children with learning disabilities may not be seen to be struggling until adolescence or even adulthood. By this time it is likely that they will have significantly fallen behind in their learning. Therefore, it is important if parents or teachers suspect that a child is experiencing difficulties in learning that the child is referred for detailed assessment. Identifying specific learning disabilities in adults can be difficult, as individuals may display a wide range of learning and performance characteristics and have by then developed strategies for managing or covering up their difficulties. Adults with specific learning disabilities are often unlikely to seek help themselves; instead concerns may arise as the result of a vocational assessment or other forms of language-based evaluations.

Assessing individuals with learning problems

It should be emphasised that not all children experiencing learning problems will necessarily go on to be diagnosed with a learning disability. Some children mature more gradually and are slower in developing certain skills. However, given that any delay in development may put a child at risk of a wide range of problems, including social and emotional difficulties, it is important to have a full assessment of difficulties if learning problems are suspected.

While individuals experiencing learning problems can be identified by observing their behaviour and achievement, actual diagnosis of a specific learning disability requires formal assessment conducted by a psychologist using standardised psychological tests. These tests compare the person's level of ability to that which is considered normal development for someone of that age and intelligence. The first step in this process involves ruling out other possible causes of the difficulties being experienced, such as a sensory problem (e.g., visual or hearing impairment), emotional disturbance (e.g., depression), environmental factors (e.g., cultural or economic disadvantage or a lack of access to adequate teaching) and intellectual disability. All of these can also have an effect on learning.

Once these other possible causes of learning problems have been eliminated and it is determined that the individual has a specific learning disability, then the second step should involve a more detailed diagnostic assessment, again using standardised  tests administered by a psychologist with appropriate training in assessing learning disabilities in children, adolescents or adults. In some instances other health professionals, such as speech pathologists, may also become involved in the assessment process. This second step provides more detailed information regarding the individual's strengths and learning difficulties and forms the basis of a focused treatment program based on sound research evidence. The types of psychologists qualified to conduct these formal assessments include educational psychologists, paediatric or developmental psychologists, and neuropsychologists.

How is a learning disability treated?

The approach to helping individuals experiencing a learning disability is to teach learning skills by building on the individual's abilities and strengths while providing strategies to compensate for areas of difficulty. As well as psychologists, other  professionals such as speech pathologists and special educators are likely to be involved and should be working as a team to develop programs that will benefit the individual.

Psychological treatment may also target non-academic difficulties that can sometimes occur alongside the learning difficulty. These may include behavioural problems such as disruptive behaviour in the classroom, social difficulties, and/or emotional problems such as depression and low self-esteem. Individuals with learning disabilities are often excluded from peer groups and can be the victims of school and workplace bullying. Social skills training can assist these individuals to adapt and fit into their social environment.

Possible outcomes for individuals with a specific learning disability

Outcomes for individuals with learning disabilities vary depending on the extent of the difficulty as well as how it is treated. Research does show that, if untreated, a person with a learning disability can experience a range of negative outcomes including academic failure, the development of disruptive behaviours at school, increased likelihood of school drop-out, unemployment, social difficulties, low self-esteem and depression. However, with the right type of help individuals can overcome these difficulties and go on to be happy and successful individuals. A learning disability does not necessarily mean a more negative employment future than anyone else. People with specific learning disabilities can be found in a range of professions.

It is important when seeking treatment to consider only those interventions that are proven to be effective. There are a number of treatments for learning disabilities that are said to be effective but have no research evidence supporting them.

While it is generally accepted that a learning disability is a lifelong condition, individuals with learning disabilities can achieve success in school and in adult life. This will depend on support from those around the individual (e.g., family, teachers, employers) and an appropriate management program which includes interventions that have been proven to be successful.

Strategies for helping individuals experiencing specific learning disabilities

  • Parents, teachers, and employers should aim to provide a quiet area for learning and working that is away from distractions.
  • Material should be presented in small units, as individuals with learning disabilities often have difficulty with long and detailed instructions but can process and follow smaller chunks of information.
  • For learning disabilities affecting reading and spelling, systematic training in phonics (linking letters with sounds which has been shown to be essential to good reading) should be given to ensure that the person has a good grasp of these skills.
  • Where possible, workloads and time frames should be adjusted to allow individuals to read the required information at their own pace and ensure they have adequate time to spend on any written reports.
  • Schools and employers should allow alternative forms of presenting work. Individuals or their families can often negotiate with the school or the employer to see if other forms of reporting are possible such as verbal presentations or oral examinations.
  • If individuals are having problems with reading or spelling they should be encouraged to use a spell check or to have someone read through any written work.
  • When teaching children with learning disabilities, where possible make the tasks highly motivating by aiming them at the child's level of interest and understanding. This will promote persistence.
  • Teachers should try to use examples and check that the child has understood.
  • Avoid making negative comments such as labelling an individual as "lazy" or "stupid". Convey to the individual that you understand the difficulties and provide a supportive environment.
  • Individuals with learning difficulties often experience low self-esteem and so it is important to notice and reward effort and any successes, even if they are small.
  • Develop non-academic areas of competence, such as sports, art or music that will provide the individual with a feeling of competence and promote self-esteem.

Remember that people with specific learning disabilities have the capacity to learn despite their difficulty. Therefore, they should be treated as individuals who, with appropriate support, can achieve and make important contributions to society.

Other resources on specific learning disabilities

The Australian Learning Disability Association website provides more detailed information as well as useful contacts in your state. This information can be found at www.adcet.edu.au/oao.

Learning Disabilities Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that provides support and resources for teachers and professional educators. Go to www.ldaustralia.org.

SPELD is a non profit organisation that provides advice and services to children and adults with specific learning difficulties. The national contact details and website are: AUSPELD www.auspeld.org.au or (08) 9217 2500.

Seeking professional assistance

An APS psychologist trained in developmental psychology and assessment has expert knowledge in the assessment and treatment of specific learning disabilities. An APS psychologist can also help to manage other problems that may be associated with the learning disability, such as self-esteem, anxiety, stress or school and workplace issues.

To talk to an APS psychologist, speak to your GP about a referral or phone the APS Find a Psychologist Service on 1800 333 497. Alternatively, you can locate a psychologist in your area by visiting the APS Find a Psychologist Service website - www.findapsychologist.org.au.

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