Our education system has done a great job confusing most of us as to what specific learning disabilities are, and how dyslexia is defined. I’ll try to describe them as simply as possible, but no guarantee that it won’t put you to sleep. Here goes….

Lorraine Donovan

There are fourteen distinct disability categories where school-aged children may need additional educational services. They include autism, deaf blindness, deafness, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic or acquired brain injury and visual impairment.

Within the category of specific learning disability are listed four sub-categories of neurological differences/diversities. Dyslexia is identified as one of the sub-categories. The term specific learning disability is described as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language and/or using concepts through verbal or written language. This also includes nonverbal means, such as thinking and listening. The unintended consequences of having a specific learning disability include deficits in memory, processing of information, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, social competence, emotional maturity, coordination, attention and communication.

The term learning disability is not a specific term; rather, it describes “specific” disabilities, all of which cause learning to be difficult. Federal law describes specific learning disabilities as disorders that are perceptual disabilities, brain injuries, minimal brain dysfunctions, dyslexia or developmental aphasia. Although most educational specialists/therapists acknowledge dyslexia as a learning disability, school districts get to decide which term to use —“dyslexia” or “specific learning disability”— when determining eligibility for special education services and/ or accommodations.

Some school districts prefer to define a learning disability based upon actual identifiable symptoms. For them, the term specific learning disability is too vague when designing an appropriate Individual Education Plan (IEP). If an evaluation identifies dyslexia signs or symptoms, then the child is dyslexic, and a generic term of specific learning disability would not describe this fact.

Others prefer to use the term specific learning disability, and believe the umbrella term covers similar evaluation procedures, educational therapies and support. This is problematic when designing an educational plan for a dyslexic student, as it will, in most cases, lack specific educational therapies and goals that help dyslexic students learn.

As mentioned earlier, there are four sub-categories that describe “specific learning disabilities” and affect eight areas of learning (listening comprehension, oral expression, written expression, basic reading skills, reading fluency, reading comprehension, math calculation and math reasoning/problem solving).

The four sub-categories are:
Dyslexia—difficulties in reading, spelling and writing, due to short-term working memory problems, visual processing problems and/ or auditory processing problems.

Dysgraphia—difficulties with handwriting and putting thoughts on paper. Signs of dysgraphia include:

  • Tight, awkward pen or pencil grip and body position.
  • Avoiding writing.
  • Trouble forming letter writing or printing shapes.
  • Inconsistent spacing between letters or words.
  • Poor understanding of uppercase/lowercase letters.
  • Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins.
  • Tiring quickly while writing.

Dyspraxia—difficulties in physical motor skills development while learning to write or draw. Signs of dyspraxia include:

  • Difficulty learning to walk, jump and skip.
  • Difficulty pronouncing words and being understood.
  • Difficulty establishing left to right-handedness.
  • Bumping into things frequently.
  • Being easily irritated by touch and clothing on skin.

Dyscalculia—difficulties in calculating numbers or grasping mathematical concepts. Two major areas of weakness can contribute to math learning disabilities:

  • Visual-spatial difficulties, which result in a student having trouble processing what the eyes see, and/or;
  • Language processing difficulties, which result in a student having trouble processing and making sense of what the ears hear. Those with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding math concepts and solving even simple math problems.

Signs of dyscalculia include:

  • Difficulty learning to count.
  • Difficulty recognizing printed numbers.
  • Poor memory for numbers.
  • Difficulty organizing things in a logical way.

In addition to the four sub-categories under the heading of specific learning disabilities, the professional medical community (neuropsychologists, clinical psychologists, etc.), has identified these ten sub-types of dyslexia, which they believe are more specific to symptoms of dyslexia:

  • Dysnemkinesia (Motor)—poor memory of motor movements involved in writing and printing numbers and letters (including number and letter reversals).
  • Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing) and dyspraxia (difficulty with motor skills), are names synonymous with dysnemkinesia.
  • Dysphonesia (Auditory Processing Weakness)—poor at phonetic (sounding out) spelling of words. Dysphonesia is also known as phonological, dysphonetic or auditory dyslexia. Problems with ambient noise, inability to distinguish between sounds that are similar, missing subtle social cues and sensitivity to loud sounds or a dislike for noisy places are common. Weakness in auditory processing is not an issue with hearing sounds; instead, the issue is how the brain interprets what is being heard. A quiet room versus a loud classroom can determine what the child interprets. Inconsistent input of reading instruction makes learning word structure very difficult. Children with auditory processing weakness will often compensate by using their visual strengths as a strategy for learning how to read. They will learn whole words as an image, like memorizing shapes or pictures, rather than trying to decode words.
  • Dyseidesia (Visual)—problems with sight word reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding) of words. Students slowly sound out words, spell phonetically, have poor decoding of unfamiliar or unknown words, have difficulty with syllables and have difficulty sounding out and blending the sounds necessary to decode a word. Word substitution (such as home for house) is also common. Dyseidesia is also known as surface dyslexia or visual dyslexia.
  • Dysphoneidesia—severe deficits in reading as well as with visual motor integration and working memory.
  • Dysphoneidesia is also known as mixed dyslexia (a combination of dysphonesia (auditory) and dyseidesia (visual).
  • Dysnemkinphonesia—a combination of dysnemkinesia (motor) and dysphonesia (auditory).
  • Dysnemkineidesia—a combination of dysnemkinesia (motor) and dyseidesia (visual).
  • Dysenemkinphoneidesia—a combination of dysnemkinesia (motor), dysphonesia (auditory), and dyseidesia (visual).
  • Dysnomia—trouble recalling a word, so they say “the thingy” when they cannot retrieve the word quickly. Dysnomia is also known as semantic dyslexia or naming-speed dyslexia.
  • Double deficit—a combination of dysphonesia or phonological dyslexia and dysnomia.
  • Dyscalculia—difficulty with mathematics.

Although these sub-categories and sub-types may seem overwhelming, it is important that parents and teachers know they exist, what they mean and how they can hinder a child’s ability to learn.