Dyslexia vs. specific learning disabilities

Susanna Barbee: In what feels like a former life, I was a school psychologist and evaluated students for exceptional children’s (special education) services. The assessment would include academic, intelligence and behavioral testing as well as interviews, observations and other forms of data collection.

I would often have parents say, “I think my child has dyslexia.” I would listen to their concerns, nodding my head and then when they finished speaking, I would explain that the education system does not use the term “dyslexia.” Instead, the assessment data may indicate a child has a “specific learning disability” or SLD.

Throughout my time as a school psychologist, I tried to educate parents on the acronyms and jargon associated with assessments and placement into an exceptional children’s program. Meetings and paperwork can be daunting. Parents should know that the services provided will help significantly, but getting from Point A to Point B can be a bit confusing.

What is dyslexia?

•A neurological deficit that affects the way a person interprets graphic symbols;

•A linguistic deficit, not a visual one;

•A disability that in no way affects general intelligence but considerably affects a person’s ability to read;

•A condition that is significantly more prevalent in boys.

What is a specific learning disability?

•A disability that affects one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written;

•A condition that may manifest itself in a reduced ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do math.

•A term used in the public educational system to identify students for exceptional children’s (special education) services.

Dyslexia and specific learning disabilities have a number of commonalities, but the main difference is that the term “dyslexia” is not used to identify students in the education system. Dyslexia is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a realm of reading difficulties while SLD can be very specific to phonics, reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing, math calculations or math applications.

Signs a student may have dyslexia or SLD in reading:

•Average to high intelligence;

•Significant difficulty reading, writing or spelling;

•Able to articulate thoughts verbally;

•Inability to get thoughts down on paper;

•Difficulty copying notes;

•Need for additional time to finish assignments;

•Challenges processing and integrating information;

•Trouble organizing school work;

•Frustration over school, often in a specific subject area (reading or math), but sometimes both;

•Poor memory for oral instructions.

Action steps and helpful tips:

•Talk with your child’s teacher immediately if you suspect a learning disability.

•Provide a quiet area for homework, especially when working in the area(s) of difficulty.

•Allow frequent breaks during homework time.

•Encourage critical thinking as opposed to memorization of facts.

•Support and use the services provided by your child’s school.

Reading, writing and math come so easily to many of us that it’s hard to imagine just how challenging it is for children who have true dyslexia or a specific learning disability. Parents need to keep in mind that learning disabilities are lifelong and the best plan is for families to find and embrace strategies that work for their child’s specific area of difficulty.

Susanna Barbee is a local mom, writer and educator. Find more on her blog, www.zealousmom.com. Reach her at susanna.barbee@gmail.com.