Common Learning Difficulties

This page provides an overview for some common learning difficulties, along with links to further information.


Autism is often referred to as Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).   Asperger’s Syndrome has been used to describe autistic people but this term is no longer generally used. Being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease. It means your brain works in a different way from most other people.  It is not a medical condition with treatments or a “cure” although some autistic people need support to help them with certain things.  Autism also provides a number of advantages.

It is fairly common for people with ASC to have other conditions such as:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD);
  • Anxiety and/or depression.

Autism can also provide significant advantages. People with ASC often fixate on specific topics.  As a result, they can focus on single issues easily and often become expert.  Bill Gates and Albert Einstein are just two examples of famous people with ASC.  

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health disorder that can cause above-normal levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviours. People with ADHD may also have trouble focusing their attention on a single task or sitting still for long periods of time.  ADD is similar although differs from ADHD in that people with ADD appear inattentive as opposed to hyperactive. 

One in ten children between ages 5 to 17 years receives an ADHD diagnosis, making this one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders in the United States.  Medication can be very helpful for students with ADHD. Medications are designed to affect brain chemicals in a way that enables the person to better control their impulses and actions.

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The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek and means ‘difficulty with words’. It is a lifelong, usually genetic, inherited condition and affects around 10% of the population,  4% severely. It is the most common of the Specific Learning Disabilities. 

A student with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and words within sentences while reading. They may also have difficulty with spelling: letter reversals are common. However Dyslexia is not only about literacy.   Dyslexia affects the way information is processed and working memory.  Working memory  is the memory that enables us to hold information as we are using it.  It is common for people with dyslexia to have difficulty with working memory.   

Dyslexic people are often highly intelligent.  They may be creative, artistic, sporting, orally articulate and highly knowledgeable. However, alongside these abilities, may be a cluster of difficulties, individual to each person.  

The following may apply to a person with dyslexia.  

Written Work. 

  • Has a poor standard of written work compared with oral ability;  
  • Has poor handwriting with badly formed letters;  
  • Has neat handwriting, but writes very slowly indeed;  
  • Produces badly set out or messily written work, with spellings crossed out 
  • several times;
  • Spells the same word differently in one piece of work;
  • Has difficulty with punctuation and/or grammar;
  • Confuses upper and lower case letters;
  • Writes a great deal but ‘loses the thread’;
  • Writes very little, but to the point;
  • Difficulty with organisation of homework;
  • Finds tasks difficult to complete work on time;
  • Appears to know more than can be committed to paper.


  • May be hesitant and laboured, especially when reading aloud;  
  • Omits, repeats or adds extra words;  
  • Reads at a reasonable rate, but has a low level of comprehension;  
  • Fails to recognise familiar words;  
  • Misses a line or repeats the same line twice;  
  • Loses their place – or uses a finger or marker to keep the place;  
  • Has difficulty in pin-pointing the main idea in a passage;  
  • Finds difficulty with dictionaries or directories.


  • Finds difficulty remembering tables and/or basic number sets;  
  • Finds sequencing problematic;  
  • Confuses signs such as x for +;  
  • Can think at a high level in mathematics, but needs a calculator for simple calculations;
  • Misreads questions that include words;  
  • Finds mental arithmetic at speed very difficult;  
  • Finds memorising formulae difficult. 

Other areas

  • Confuses direction – left/right;  
  • Has difficulty in learning foreign languages;  
  • Has indeterminate hand preference;  
  • Has difficulty in finding the name for an object;  
  • Has clear processing problems at speed;  
  • Misunderstands complicated questions;  
  • Finds holding a list of instructions in memory difficult, although can perform all tasks when told individually


  • Is disorganised or forgetful e.g. over sports equipment, lessons, homework, appointments;  Is immature and/or clumsy;  
  • Has difficulty relating to others: is unable to ‘read’ body language;  
  • Is often in the wrong place at the wrong time;  
  • Is excessively tired, due to the amount of concentration and effort required.

If you see a cluster of difficulties together with abilities in specific areas, the young person may be dyslexic.

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Dyspraxia is also know as developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD).  It is a common disorder that affects movement and co-ordination.   It does not affect  intelligence but can make it more difficult to learn.  It can also make daily life more difficult and affect  coordination, skills requiring balance as well as fine motor skills, such as writing or tying laces.

There is no cure for dyspraxia but a number of therapies can help children to manage their difficulties.

These include:

  • being taught ways of do activities they find difficult, such as breaking down difficult movements into smaller parts and practicing them regularly
  • adapting tasks to make them easier, such as using special grips on pens and pencils so they are easier to hold

Although dyspraxia does not affect how intelligent a child is, it can make learning more difficult and they may need extra help to keep up at school.

Although the physical co-ordination of a child with dyspraxia will probably remain below average, it often becomes less of a problem as they get older.  However, difficulties in school, particularly producing written work, can become much more prominent and require extra help from parents and teachers.

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Hearing Impairment

There are 2 main types of hearing impairment: 

Conductive: This is the most common type and occurs when sound cannot pass through the outer and middle ear to the cochlea and auditory nerve in the inner ear. This is often caused by fluid building up in the middle ear (also known as ‘glue ear’). Glue ear can cause temporary deafness and either clears up naturally after a short period of time or can develop into a long-term condition requiring intervention, such as grommets, or wearing hearing aids. 

Sensori-Neural: As sound passes through the outer and middle ear, tiny hair cells in the cochlea convert sound waves into electrical signals. These signals travel along the nerve of hearing to the brain. Most cases of sensori-neural deafness are caused by loss of, or damage to the hair cells in the cochlea, so the cochlea does not process the sound effectively. The deafness can be genetic or caused by an infectious disease such as rubella, mumps, measles or meningitis and is permanent. 

‘Mixed deafness’ is when a child has a mixture of conductive and sensori-neural deafness. 

Degrees of deafness 

There are different degrees of deafness and these are classified as mild, moderate, severe or profound. Some children have little or no hearing in one ear, and ordinary levels of hearing in the other ear.  This is known as unilateral deafness. 

Mild deafness: 20-40 dB could hear a baby crying or music, but maybe unable to hear whispered conversation.

Moderate deafness: 41-70 dB would hear a dog barking or telephone ringing but may be unable to hear a baby crying. 

Severe deafness: 71-95 dB would be able to hear a chainsaw or drums being played but may be unable to hear a piano or a dog barking. 

Profound deafness: >95 dB would be able to hear an articulated lorry or aeroplane but not hear a telephone ringing. 

Deafness does not always fit into a particular category.  A child may have a moderate to severe hearing loss, therefore features of both levels need to be considered. 

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Visual Impairment

It is estimated that there are around 25,000 children and young people up to the age of 16 in England and Wales with a visual impairment of sufficient severity to meet the definition of special education needs. 

Some indicators of visual impairment include:

  • inflamed, weepy, cloudy or bloodshot eyes;
  • squints and eyes that do not seem to be aligned and working together;
  • rapid involuntary eye movements;
  • continually blinking, rubbing or screwing up of eyes;
  • discomfort in bright light;
  • frequent headaches or dizziness;
  • poor balance;
  • difficulty in copying from the board;
  • poor presentation skills;
  • confusion between similarly shaped letters words. 

If you think your child may have difficulties with their vision, it is vital that they visit an optician.  Eye tests are free to all children under the age of 16 and the optician will be able to diagnose any other issues that may be affecting their eyesight.  Unfortunately, some children with prescription glasses are reluctant to wear them.  If this is the chase for your child, please let us know so that we can chat to them about it.     

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