Specific Learning Disorders Defined

The 5th Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, defines specific learning disorder as “a heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by persistent difficulties with learning academic skills in a variety of domains, including reading, spelling, written expression and mathematics” (Chapter 5.Specific Learning Disorder). A Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) does not imply that a person cannot learn; it means only that the process of performing that specific academic skill is much different than the way most people do that activity.

College Students with Reading Disorders:

The term dyslexia, still used outside of diagnostic circles, refers to the most common type of learning disorder: difficulties with reading. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) defines dyslexia as “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities . . . [which] may include problems in reading comprehension” (Definition of Dyslexia 2018).  The IDA says that “as many as 15–20% of the population as a whole—have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words” (Frequently Asked Questions 2020).

College students with a diagnosed reading disability say they can often easily read words individually but that it can take many re-readings and more time to process the meaning of words collectively. They also report difficulty in proofreading their own writing. Students with specific learning disorders admitted to college are fully capable of doing the work; however, these students need to discover their own compensation strategies which can take a great deal of time and work but can be highly effective.

The challenges students faced in elementary school in learning to read with this disability can leave them feeling they are less intelligent than their peers, as if they are damaged or deficient in some way.  Because of these feelings, college students are often afraid or embarrassed to request accommodations for a reading disability. Many of them also hope they will no longer need the assistance used in earlier years once they get to college, yet people rarely outgrow neurobiological conditions. Students will also resist suggestions that they may have a significant difference in learning, perceiving a learning disability as a limiting diagnosis or label. The stigma associated with a learning disability is strong and perhaps more disruptive than the learning difference. However, as with most other types of neurodivergence, people who process reading differently with effective compensatory strategies can be original thinkers, effective problem-solvers, and successful students and professionals.

Students who used special education support in elementary and high school fear that the strategies they depend on can be perceived as unfair advantages. Yet these accommodations are not special privileges but necessary aids, just as corrective lenses are essential for those without perfect vision. When accommodations approved by the Office of Disability Access and Education are used, these accommodations allow students to work free of the limits of a disability or neurodivergence in a system that is not always designed with their unique attributes in mind.

Other Types of Learning Disorders:

Difficulty with reading is only one of many types of specific learning disorders. Learning Disabilities Association of America lists the following with brief explanations. To learn more go to LDAA for Educators which includes individual links for information on each condition.

  • Dyscalculia
    • A specific learning disability that affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts.
  • Dysgraphia
    • A specific learning disability that affects a person’s handwriting ability and fine motor skills.
  • Dyslexia
    • A specific learning disability that affects reading and related language-based processing skills.
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
    • Has trouble interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language and may have poor coordination.
  • Oral / Written Language Disorder and Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit
    • Learning disabilities that affect an individual’s understanding of what they read or of spoken language. The ability to express one’s self with oral language may also be impacted


In addition, LDAA lists the following related conditions:

  • ADHD
    • A disorder that includes difficulty staying focused and paying attention, controlling behavior and hyperactivity.
  • Executive Function
    • Affects planning, organization, strategizing, attention to details and managing time and space.
  • Dyspraxia
    • A disorder which causes problems with movement and coordination, language and speech.

(Support and Resources for Educators, 2020)


Disability or Diversity?

The stigma and our misunderstandings about specific learning disorders and other disabilities are just as debilitating as the disability itself. In order to combat this type of stigma, we need to shift our thinking from seeing disabilities as something “wrong” to seeing differences and diversity to be appreciated, just as we appreciate our skin and hair color, body type, cultural background, and gender. 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31 reminds us that the full body of Christ has many parts with different functions. Verse 22 says “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” A college student or working professional with a reading disability may feel weak because of this difference, but in God’s “upside-down kingdom,” weakness can be strength.  Neurodiversity leads to originality in ways of thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.


Chapter 5. Specific Learning Disorder. Psychiatry Online. https://psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.books.9781585625048.gg05.

Definition of Dyslexia. International Dyslexia Association. (2018, July 16). https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/.

Frequently Asked Questions. International Dyslexia Association. (2020, May 27). https://dyslexiaida.org/frequently-asked-questions-2/.

Support and Resources for Educators. Learning Disabilities Association of America. (2020, March 29). https://ldaamerica.org/educators/.