What is a learning disorder, and do I have one?

Learning disorders affect the way you process information and communicate with others. Although learning disorders like dyslexia and dysgraphia are common, many people aren't diagnosed until adulthood.

Living with a learning disability can make it challenging to keep up at work and home at times, but having the right support can make all the difference.

If you suspect you might have a learning disorder, receiving a diagnosis could help you get the support you need to thrive at work and in life.

In this guide, we explain how to know if you have a learning disorder, what the common signs are and where to get support.

What is a learning disorder?

A learning disorder is a long-term condition that affects a person's ability in a specific learning area, such as reading, writing, speaking or maths.

Living with a learning disorder can impact the way you learn, understand and communicate. For some people, it can make it challenging to perform at school, home or in the workplace.

Learning disorders are sometimes called learning disabilities. They do not affect a person's intelligence, and are not the same as intellectual disabilities.

A person can be born with a learning disorder or they may acquire it later in life. Learning disorders are often present from childhood, but they may go undiagnosed until adulthood.

Types of learning disorders

There are many different types of learning disorders, including:

  • Dyslexia – difficulties with reading and writing
  • Dysgraphia – difficulties with spelling and handwriting
  • Dyscalculia – difficulties with maths and numbers
  • Dysphasia – difficulties with speaking and understanding speech

How to know if you have a learning disorder

Understanding more about learning disorders and the common signs is a good first step. It may also help to write down or record your own experiences and difficulties. This can help you spot patterns and find potential workarounds.

You can bring these records to a meeting with your doctor. It can give them a better picture of what you're going through and what support you might need.

The only way to know if you have a learning disorder for certain is to get an assessment from a qualified professional. For many people, getting a diagnosis brings a sense of relief. Understanding more about the way your brain works can help you get better support to succeed in life and at work.

Signs and symptoms of learning disorders

Common signs of a learning disorder include:

  • Finding it hard to spell, do maths or read
  • Learning new skills at a slower pace to others
  • Taking longer to finish tasks at work
  • Trouble remembering words, numbers or instructions
  • Difficulty following a long conversation
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Disorganisation
  • Finding it hard to adjust to change
  • Problems with hand eye coordination

Other conditions

Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share some symptoms and signs with learning disorders. ADHD and ASD are not learning disabilities, but they can make it difficult to learn or process information in some situations.

Find out more:

How is a learning disorder diagnosed?

Learning difficulties often start in childhood, but are not always diagnosed or picked up until later. Many people are diagnosed as adults.

The best way to know if you have a learning disorder is to speak with a qualified professional. Start by talking to your GP about your concerns and symptoms. Your GP may refer you to a specialist for an assessment.

During the assessment, you may be asked about your childhood, education, family history, medical history and mental health. You may also be asked to complete a test that measures your abilities with writing, reading, speaking or maths.

When to get help?

If you're finding it hard to cope, it's important to get help sooner than later. Having the right tools and supports in place can help you feel more confident and in control moving forward.

It's important to seek help if:

  • Symptoms are affecting your day-to-day life
  • You're finding it hard to cope at work or feel that your job is at risk
  • You're experiencing stress, anxiety or low mood

Support for learning disorders

There are many supports and services that can help you manage symptoms and overcome challenges you might be facing. These include:

Tutors and learning programs

There are a number of private and public adult education programs which can help you gain skills in specific learning areas. For example, in Western Australia, the Read Write Now program is a free program that pairs you with a volunteer tutor for one-on-one learning. You can also visit the Reading and Writing Hotline for more information.

Mental health helplines

Living with a learning disability can take a toll on your mental health. If you're finding it hard to cope or just need someone to talk to, you can contact a mental health helpline via phone or online chat. You can also speak to your GP about how you've been feeling and ask for a referral to a psychologist.

Employment support

If you're living with a learning disability and need support to find work or stay in a job, you could be eligible for Disability Employment Services. This government-funded program can help you with preparing for the workplace, finding job opportunities, accessing workplace accommodations and more. Speak to APM to see if you're eligible.

After reading this guide on how to know if you have a learning disorder, read our other guides to living and working with a learning disability: