What Are Learning Disorders? - Types & Causes

Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson you will learn about learning disorders and their cause. Following this lesson you will have an opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

What Are Learning Disorders and What Causes Them?

Similar to a computer, the human brain relies on properly functioning input, processing, and output systems. When any of these systems is not working properly, then learning new information can be difficult or even impossible. Learning disorders are the result of central nervous system input, processing, and/or output difficulties.

As mentioned, learning disorders are related to central nervous system input, processing, or output deficiencies and not broader cognitive abilities, like intelligence. Therefore, contrary to popular thought, many people with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence. Learning disorders are typically diagnosed when a person's assessed abilities in core academic areas are substantially lower than his or her overall cognitive abilities.

For instance, a person with an overall assessed IQ of 100 (which is average), who also has an achievement test score in math of 70 (which is considered impaired), would likely be considered a person with a mathematics learning disorder. These same diagnostic principles apply to the other categories of learning disorders, which will be discussed later in this lesson.

Next we will look a little bit closer at each of the three central nervous system aspects which impact learning disorders.

Sensory Input

In the case of sensory system impairments, inaccurate or incomplete information being taken in from the environment makes reaching accurate conclusions a challenge. For example, while reading, a person who has difficulty recognizing letters on a page will struggle to take in the proper information. Using the computer analogy, imagine trying to type the word 'grass' on a keyboard, but every time you push the 'G' key either nothing happens or some other letter shows up on the page. Not only would that be frustrating, but make it pretty difficult to express your thoughts in writing.


Think of the last time you were trying to use a computer and it was slow and seemingly taking forever to respond. Then once it did finally respond it gave you an error message. Pretty frustrating, right? In the context of the central nervous system, processing refers to how the brain makes sense of the information taken in from the environment. Sometimes accurate information is received by the brain, but processing errors occur, which can impact important aspects like speed and/or accuracy.


Output errors are exhibited as problems related to things such as speech and even coordination. The brain properly receives information taken in from the environment, processes it accurately, but a breakdown occurs when trying to demonstrate a response. An analogous computer example might be issues related to a faulty monitor. The keyboard may be receiving input, the processor functions quickly and with accuracy, but if the monitor is not operating properly then the computer cannot communicate its response to the user.

Types of Learning Disorders

While all learning disorders are the result of deficiencies in the central nervous system, these deficiencies can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Learning disorders have the greatest impact in areas most commonly associated with academics, such as reading, math, and writing. According to the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, four distinct types of learning disorders exist.

Reading Disorder

Reading disorders are diagnosed when a person's reading accuracy, speed, and/or comprehension are impacted to the point that his or her abilities in any of these areas are substantially below that person's overall abilities.

Disorder of Written Expression

A person who has difficulty with expressing his or her thoughts in accordance with the basic rules of writing, but has overall cognitive abilities significantly higher than their writing abilities, likely meets the criteria for having a disorder of written expression. Additional difficulties with specific areas of writing, such as spelling and handwriting, may also contribute to the disorder, but in and of themselves do not constitute a disorder of written expression.

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