Learning disabilities: types, symptoms, causes and treatments

Learning disabilities are difficulties that some children encounter when it comes to learning to read, write and calculate.… They are usually detected at the schooling stage and are becoming more and more frequent. This is explained by the fact that the beginning of the teaching progresses more and more.

In this article, we will discover the different learning disabilities offered by the DSM-IV-TR and the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders). We will explain what each is, and we will also mention the disorders proposed by ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases).

Learning Disabilities: What Are They?

Learning disabilities involve performance in academic fields significantly lower than expected (usually around two standard deviations from other students). This poor performance interferes with student learning.

The prevalence of learning disabilities ranges from 2% to 8%. In addition, 40% of students with learning difficulties end up dropping out of school, which is an alarming fact.

So, very often this type of disorder is linked to academic failure, although the relationship is neither direct nor two-way. These are more common disorders in recent times as the start of teaching advances.

Classification of DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5

In the DSM-IV-TR (2002) (Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders), learning disabilities have been classified into:

  • Reading disorder
  • Calculation disorder
  • Written expression disorder
  • Unspecified learning disability

With the arrival of the latest edition of the Diagnostic Manual, DSM-5 (2013), comes a significant change from this type of disorder. The previous categories are deleted and only one appears, called a “specific learning disability”, which groups the previous cases into a single category.

After having made this preliminary clarification, we will explain what each of these DSM-IV-TR disorders consists of, of which, let us remember, they would all now be called “specific learning disabilities”.

1. Reading disorder

The reading disorder is classic dyslexia. It accounts for 80% of all learning disability diagnoses. In addition, it affects up to 5% of schoolchildren. That is to say?

Basically, in a decrease in reading performance; that is, student performance is up to two standard deviations lower than the child’s age, IQ, and expected academic results. This is demonstrated by standardized learning tests, administered individually.

like that, the consequences of a reading disability interfere with a student’s academic performance or activities of daily living. On the other hand, in the event of sensory deficit prior to the pupil, the difficulties which appear would exceed the usual for him.

It is recommended that you not be diagnosed with a reading disorder before the age of 7.

2. Written expression disorder

The second of the learning disabilities is Written Expression Disorder, which is also found in DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 as “Specific Learning Disability”.

In this case, the student shows lower writing skills than expected for their age, IQ, and education (also two standard deviations below). As with all learning disabilities, there is also interference with daily life or academic performance, and in the case of sensory deficits the difficulties exceed those that could be justified.

habitually a student with a written expression disability also has difficulty organizing written material, As well as grammatical errors, punctuation and organization of paragraphs.


It should be mentioned that in the ICD (International Classification of Diseases) this specific category does not exist. On the other hand, if there is only an alteration in writing (calligraphy), this diagnosis is not made, but “Developmental coordination disorder” (in the DSM) or “Motricity disorder”. »(At CIE).

3. Calculation disorder

The calculus disorder is classical acalculia, which causes difficulty in performing mathematical operations. Thus, the student’s computational ability is lower than normal, which reduces their performance and / or interferes with their daily life. According to ICD-10, to make this diagnosis, the read and write ability must be normal.

What is most affected, of course, are mathematical skills (eg counting, serialization, creating multiplication tables …). However, a person with a computer disorder also has an impairment in visuoperceptive and visuospatial skills, as well as skills related to mathematical terms. These can affect:

  • Linguistic domain: understanding of mathematical terms / operators.
  • Perception area: recognition / reading of mathematical / arithmetic symbols / grouping of objects, etc.
  • Attention zone: for example when making “covered” leftovers.

Specific learning disability (DSM-5)

The specific learning disability of DSM-5, which combines the above with this denomination, involves certain difficulties in learning and using academic skills.

These difficulties last 6 months or more and include at least one of the following symptoms (although they may be more), depending on the type of learning disability (dyslexia, acalculia, etc.).

1. Reading

The reading is altered and results in slow, inaccurate, or inappropriate intonation reading.

2. Understanding

Difficulties arise in understanding what is read. However, decoding (reading-pronunciation) may be appropriate.

3. Spelling

The spelling is changed; the student can add, omit or replace different letters, both vowels and consonants.

4. Written expression

There are grammatical errors in the written expression, in the punctuation or in the organization of the paragraphs.

5. Calculation

Difficulties can also arise in mastering numerical sense, numerical data or the calculation itself.

6. Mathematical reasoning

Difficulties arise in mathematical reasoning, which is of a more abstract type, that is, in solving mathematical problems.

Considerations for the specific learning disability

As can be seen, the specific learning disability proposed by the DSM-5 includes the learning disabilities of the DSM-IV-TR, and one can make a diagnosis or another depending on whether the alterations occur in one of the previous areas or in another.

The DSM-5 specific learning disability also includes instances where the student has spelling difficulties (which were not in the DSM-IV), writing difficulties (which were in the DSM-IV ) and / or calculation difficulties (DSM-5 introduces difficulties in mathematical problems.

however, apart from the specific learning disability, there are calligraphy problems, which are not diagnosed as such..

Learning disabilities in ICD

We have seen learning disabilities in the DSM. In the CIE, however, which is the Spanish version, these are classified as “Specific Disorders of School Learning Development” and include the following specific categories:

  • Specific reading disorder
  • Specific spelling problem
  • Specific computational disorder
  • Mixed developmental disorder of school learning
  • Other developmental disorders of school learning
  • Developmental disorder of school learning without specification

As can be seen, these are very similar disabilities to the learning disabilities offered by the latest versions of DSM, and a few more are included.

Bibliographical references:

  • American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2002). Diagnostic and statistical manual DSM-IV-TR mental disorders. Barcelona: Masson.

  • American Psychiatric Association -APA- (2014). DSM-5. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Madrid: Panamericana.

  • WHO (2000). CIE-10. International Classification of Diseases, tenth edition. Madrid. Panamericana.

  • Ramos, F., Manga, D., González H. and Pérez, M. Learning disabilities. In Belloch, A., Sandín, B. and Ramos, F. (2008): Handbook of psychopathology. Revised edition. Volume II. McGraw-Hill. Madrid.

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