Understanding Learning Disabilities

Important Terms for Parents Who Have Children with Learning Disabilities

Navigating the public school system when your child has a learning disability can be intimidating. There are a lot of new terms, acronyms and descriptions that have evolved recently. Here’s a list that will help you understand some of the terms educators and professionals may use when discussing a child with a learning disability.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A condition that usually begins in childhood and can continue into adulthood. Symptoms manifest in difficulty in staying focused or hyperfocusing, poor impulse control or constant movement. ADHD can affect one’s ability to learn and manage time and can have long lasting effects on school and work success.


An autism spectrum disorder characterized by an inability to interact socially, uncoordinated motor functions, repetitive behavior, limited interest and/or nonverbal communication problems.  These individuals usually have normal to above normal intelligence and language skills.


A brain development disorder, characterized by impaired social interaction, communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior – symptoms usually manifest within the first two years of life.

Central Auditory Processing Disorders

A physical hearing disorder that results in a break down in what the ear hears and what the brain perceives as input of information. Individuals with this disorder have no signs of a hearing disorder and actually pass normal hearing screenings and tests. The brain has a difficult time separating meaningful information from normal background noise, resulting in mixed messages or total misunderstanding of what is being said.  Many times these individuals are considered to have ADHD.  When treated for the condition, there is minimal change in behavior.

Developmental Dyspraxia

A disorder marked by the sufferer’s inability to plan and carry out sensory motor tasks.


A specified learning issue dealing exclusively with the learning and/or understanding of mathematics.


A learning disability resulting in poor written expression and graphing, despite good reading and verbal expression skills.  Some individuals with extremely poor handwriting can fall into this group, but poor handwriting does not always mean dysgraphia.


A learning disability that is caused by a neurological disconnect in the brain where language, visual and auditory are not translated into understandable language. Individuals with dyslexia have difficulty in learning to read despite traditional instruction, have at least average intelligence, and have an adequate opportunity to learn.

As defined by the International Dyslexia Association –

“Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Adopted by the IDA Board of Directors, Nov. 12, 2002. This Definition is also used by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Many state education codes, including New Jersey, Ohio and Utah, have adopted this definition.

Educational Coaching

Working with a student to help him discover ways to better perform in academia via a series of exercises and lessons.

Executive Function

The organization of mental skills resulting in effective time management, attention, planning and organizing, switching focus when appropriate, remembering details, controlling improper speech and behavior and combining previous experiences with current performance.

Expressive Language Disorder

A learning disability where one has difficulty expressing himself orally or written.

Fine motor skills

How well an individual uses smaller muscles.  Activities which require fine motor skills include tying shoelaces, doing up buttons, cutting out shapes with a pair of scissors, and writing.

Gross motor skills

How well an individual uses large muscles that coordinate body movement. This includes jumping, throwing, walking, running, and maintaining balance.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Nonverbal Learning Disability (Disorder?)

A neurophysiological disorder originating in the right hemisphere of the brain resulting in an impairment in varying degrees of the nonverbal or performance based information of visual-spatial, intuitive, organization, evaluative, and holistic processing functions.

Receptive Language Disorder

A learning disability which can impede the understanding and/or expression of language.

Sensory Processing Disorder  (originally called Sensory Integration Dysfunction) 

A neurological disorder resulting in difficulties processing information from the five senses, the sense of movement or the vestibular system , and/or the positional sense known as proprioception.   (Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. For those with Sensory Processing Disorder, sensory information goes into the brain but does not get organized into appropriate responses. Those with SPD perceive and/or respond to sensory information differently than most other people. Unlike people who have impaired sight or hearing, those with Sensory Processing Disorder do detect the sensory information; however, the sensory information gets “mixed up” in their brain and therefore the responses are inappropriate in the context in which they find themselves.

Visual Processing Disorder

A neurological dysfunction in processing ocular information