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Learning Disabilities: A Brochure for Psychologists

Stephen Rothenberg

Is your client easily distracted by his/her own thoughts?
Does he/she take a long time to process and respond to what you say?
Do you find that your client often lacks insight or self awareness?
Do you find that your client displays concrete thinking despite what appears to be at least average intelligence?

If so, you may be working with someone who has a learning disability (LD).


What is a learning disability?

The definition provided in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that:

(i) A learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

(ii) The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

In the course of your practice, you are very likely to encounter clients who have been diagnosed or are in need of an evaluation for learning disabilities. An estimated 5 to 20 percent of the population is affected by LD.

It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of people identified with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also have some form of LD. ADHD is a "red flag" for a possible learning evaluation.

Behavioral difficulties or internalizing disorders may also be secondary problems to undiagnosed LD. Performing a thorough evaluation of school and work performance is critical.

Language-based learning disabilities (including dyslexia) are the most commonly known and diagnosed. There are also nonverbal learning disorders, which may involve significant difficulty with visual-spatial problem-solving, mathematics and/or handwriting.


Warning signs for adults

Clients do not need to exhibit all symptoms to consider the possibility of LD.

  • Significant discrepancies between apparent intellectual ability and actual school and/or work performance

  • Cognitive distortions and distorted perceptions despite apparently adequate parenting, average intelligence and good reality testing.

  • Avoidance of reading

  • Difficulty expressing thoughts orally or in writing

  • Problematic academic history

  • Difficulty remembering newly learned information

  • Organizational difficulties

  • Impulsivity, low frustration tolerance

  • Poor work or relationship history

  • Poor self-esteem, lifelong feeling of being "stupid"

  • Poor motor skills or history of clumsiness, lack of involvement in athletic endeavors

  • External locus of control (Feeling that events are outside of one's control)

  • Problems in peer and coworker interactions

  • Missing the point of subtle jokes

  • Finding or keeping a job


Developmental history

  • Immaturity, language delay, or delay in developmental motor milestones

  • Prenatal substance use by mother

  • Prematurity

  • Low birth weight

  • Birth trauma

  • History of Otitis Media or allergies

  • High fevers

  • Accidents involving head trauma or loss of consciousness

  • Inconsistent school history

  • Retention in one or more grades

  • Social difficulties, lack of friendships


What can I do if I feel I am working with someone who has a learning disability?

Having a comprehensive evaluation of cognitive, social, emotional, motor and academic skills is the first step. Referrals can be made to licensed psychologists specializing in assessment of LD. The assessment can identify particular learning strengths and weaknesses and offer recommendations for remediation.

These organizations are available as resources for professionals, clients and their families:

  • Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) is a non- profit, volunteer organization including individuals with learning disabilities, their families, and professionals. LDW® is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for all individuals with learning disabilities and their families, and to alleviating the restricting effects of learning disabilities. Phone: 978-897-5399. Website:

  • The American Psychological Association is the professional organization for psychologists in the United States. In addition to advocating for the practice of psychology in the states, we are also committed to sharing information on psychological issues with the public. Phone: 800-374-2721. Website:


Selected references

Brooks, Robert and Goldstein, Sam. (2004) The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Citro, Teresa A. (Ed.) (1999) Successful Lifetime Management: Adults with Learning Disabilities. Waltham, MA: Learning Disabilities Worldwide.

Citro, Teresa A. (Ed.) (2001) Transitional Skills for Post Secondary Success: Reflections for Students with Learning Disabilities. Weston, MA: Learning Disabilities Worldwide.

Guyer, Barbara P. (1997) The Pretenders: Gifted People Who Have Difficulty Learning. Homewood, IL.: High Tide Press.

Levine, Melvin D. (1987) Developmental and Learning Disorders. Cambridge/Toronto: Educator's Publishing Service, Inc.

Sagmiller, Girard J. (2000) Dyslexia My Life. Lee's Summit, MO: DT Publishing

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