Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) 101
According to recent research, 8 to 10 percent of American students under 18 have some type of learning disability. That translates to 38 percent of all children with an IEP. So let’s take a look at who qualifies for a specific learning disability.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines a specific learning disorder as “a type of neurodevelopmental disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, or arithmetic), which are the foundation for other academic learning.”
In order to be diagnosed with SLD, the DSM-5 requires that a student meet the following four criteria:
- Persistent difficulties in reading, writing, arithmetic, or mathematical reasoning skills (including slow and laborious reading, poor written expression, problems remembering numbers or trouble with mathematical reasoning)
- Academic skills in reading, writing, and math are well below average.
- Learning difficulties begin early, during the school-age years
- Difficulties “significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living” and cannot be “better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders”
It should be noted that there is a slight difference in how SLD is applied. A “specific learning disorder” is a medical term used in making a medical diagnosis, while school districts use the term “specific learning disability” (also abbreviated as SLD). Children identified by their school district as having a specific learning disability — one of thirteen categories that make a child eligible for an IEP — can receive services accordingly. But not all learning disabilities that a school recognizes would be necessarily categorized by the DSM-5 as a learning disorder.
What is a specific learning disability?
Updates in 2006 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) clarified the need to support students with learning disabilities regardless of their perceived intellectual abilities. To determine whether a child has an SLD, a state cannot “require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.” Instead, a student must be identified as not meeting grade-level standards or “achiev[ing] adequately for the child’s age” IF they have been “provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child’s age” in the following areas:
- Oral expression
- Listening comprehension
- Written expression
- Basic reading skills
- Reading fluency skills
- Reading comprehension
- Mathematics calculation
- Mathematics problem solving
But like the DSM-5, IDEA also states that a child can only be diagnosed with learning disabilities if the learning challenges are not the result of other disabilities, including visual, hearing, motor, intellectual, emotional disturbance, or factors including cultural differences, environmental or economic disadvantages, or limited English language.
IDEA lists the following as specific learning disabilities: perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The DSM-5 lists three: dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.
Can a child with intellectual disabilities also have learning disabilities?
Similar to IDEA, previous DSM definitions of specific learning disabilities used what is called an “IQ-discrepancy model,” which allowed a child to be diagnosed with a learning disability only if there was a substantial difference between their tested general intelligence (IQ) and their academic achievement. To put it bluntly, a child had to be smart in order to be assessed for a learning disability that explained why they weren’t performing as expected.
Luckily, the new criteria for diagnosing SLD means that more kids should have access to the reading interventions they need. As Rosemary Tannock explains on the International Dyslexia Association website, “For the education system, the elimination of the IQ achievement discrepancy criterion might mean they are able to provide special education services to children with SLD and lower IQ (e.g., IQ score above 70 ± 5), but who do not have an Intellectual Disability. These children show a similar response to intervention as do children with SLD and higher IQ scores.”
And while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a person’s IQ does not determine whether or not they can have a learning disability, it’s still generally accepted that children with developmental disabilities, particularly intellectual disability, cannot also be diagnosed with a learning disability because one disability would negate the need to define a second. One reason for this is merely diagnostic. A specific learning disorder is classified as one type of neurodevelopmental disorder as distinct from other neurodevelopmental disorders, including intellectual disability (ID), autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), communication disorders, and motor disorders.
Another has to do with age-old assumptions. As Tannock puts it, the DSM-5 definition of an SLD includes the necessity that “the learning difficulties are ‘unexpected’ in that other aspects of development seem to be fine.” Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, writes in her book Overcoming Dyslexia, “Since its first description over a century ago, dyslexia has been recognized as an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the ability to be a much better reader.”
It’s this word “unexpected” that prevents children with developmental disabilities from accessing reading interventions even though they can struggle with reading in the same ways as children with learning disabilities and can benefit from structured reading intervention in the same ways too. As this article argues, continuing to focus on what’s “unexpected” means that schools take a “wait to fail” approach: “The higher the IQ, the earlier the discrepancy is detected — so students with lower IQs have to wait longer for interventions, and most never catch up.”
How can parents make sure their child receives the supports they need?
Of course, a child can have more than one neurodevelopmental disorder, so parents, clinicians, and teachers are left with the task of assessing a child accurately to make sure they receive all the interventions — both therapeutic and academic — that they need regardless of whatever diagnosis they receive.
Elizabeth Bloom, Education Advocate and Regional Leader–Los Angeles of Decoding Dyslexia CA, reminds us that “generally speaking, interventions are based on assessment results.” Therefore, as parents, we should make sure our kids are being assessed accurately and thoroughly. When students are assessed for an IEP, they should be given a multidisciplinary set of assessments in suspected areas of need: academics, speech and language, occupational, behavioral, vision/hearing, motor skills, and more.
Because students with co-occurring diagnoses can present with challenges in any or all domains of assessment, Bloom says, “I advise parents who have kids with co-occurring diagnoses to explore which domains of learning and development they think are impacted by their underlying skill challenges.” And it’s important to remember that looking at a child’s strengths is just as important as examining their challenges so that providers can “utilize strengths when building interventions for weaker skill sets.”
Dr. Sarah Pelangka, BCBA-D, special education advocate and owner of KnowIEPs, says, “Any area that arises as a barrier to accessing education needs to be supported via the IEP, be it by goals and services or accommodations. If you have a student who qualifies under multiple disabilities and intellectual disability is one of them, their primary IEP eligibility category can arguably be ‘Multiple Disabilities.’ That triggers the IEP team (e.g., the teacher when they see the front page of the IEP) to really dive into what, specifically, that student's needs are.” For example:
- If the student also has co-occurring intellectual disability, they will likely require additional layers of supports, such as assistive technology or modifications to the curriculum (not necessarily an alternate curriculum).
- If a student qualifies under both intellectual disability and SLD, there are processing deficits and processing strengths, so there need to be discussions about how that child learns best.
- If a student has both SLD (such as dyslexia) and Other Health Impairment (e.g., ADHD), the student will need heavy supports in executive functioning, working memory, etc.
In short, she says, “Parents need to know what the eligibilities entail — what all the information means and how to best support those areas. If the psychologist doesn't explain it clearly, ask them to — it’s their job! It’s a lot of information, but understanding how your child’s brain processes information REALLY helps.”
If you feel the school has not assessed your child accurately or thoroughly, you have the right to request additional assessments, including an Independent Educational Evaluation, or IEE. You can read more about IEEs and how to request one in our article Independent Educational Evaluations 101.