Dyslexia and Specific Learning Differences

by Jess Tuohy

Specific Learning Differences (also called Specific Learning Difficulties / Disabilities / Disorders and for short SpLDs), are individual differences in the way information is acquired and processed.

These differences often run in the family and are not considered ‘behavioural’ issues. Furthermore, a Specific Learning Difference is separate from, and has no impact upon, intelligence. Is is also common for SpLDs to co-occur with profiles that include autism, attention deficit disorder, sensory processing difficulties, and / or social pragmatic communication disorder.

All SpLDs can have significant impact on a child’s ability to access the curriculum and acquire foundational academic skills.

Common SpLDs include:

  • Dyslexia
    Which is characterised by difficulties with accurate and /or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities and, importantly, also includes difficulties with verbal memory. These difficulties can impact general organization, the ability to process information quickly and the ability to remember instructions.
  • Dyspraxia (Developmental Coordination Disorder)
    This is primarily a motor difficulty and the planning and execution of a motor plan. A person may struggle with all aspects of motor planning or with one particular stage of motor planning – producing an idea of what to do, figuring out how to do it, executing the plan and adjusting the plan according to changing needs. Dyspraxia is associated more with novel learning than familiar tasks.
  • Dyscalculia
    Is associated with numeracy and mathematical ability and has strong visuospatial and visual memory components.
  • Dysgraphia
    Relates to persistent handwriting difficulties associated with challenges in visual-motor development and integration. When there is a language-based component this is associated with difficulties constructing logical, meaningful written expression.
  • Specific Language Impairment
    An SLI can be expressive, or receptive, language or both, and may be related to the ability to listen to, recognize, and manipulate the sounds of spoken language. SLIs are distinct from speech disorders (such as stuttering), and may include difficulties with vocabulary, word meanings or concept formation

The purpose of an assessment for Specific Learning Differences is to establish a student’s unique learning needs in order to provide the best possible support in the classroom and at home. It is more than provision of a diagnostic label, and it should mean more than extended time for examinations.

Formal identification of a Specific Learning Difference should be undertaken by a multidisciplinary team in close liaison with teaching staff. Parents are central to this process.

Following a comprehensive, joined-up, assessment, a student’s parents, educators and learning support network (which may include a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, developmental optometrist and / or specialized tutor) should be equipped with well reasoned strategies that include remediation, adaption and accommodations; and measurable goals to make sure input is on track and effective.

Following a very thorough and systematic procedure, completed over time, a specific diagnosis can be provided by: Specialist Teachers trained in SpLD assessment (for example with an up to date ABMDA certification); and Educational Psychologists or Clinical Psychologists who have specific training in this area. Please check with your child’s specific school for acceptable sources of diagnosis if you are seeking additional support for formal examinations.

Further help and information for parents can be found at:




Compiled by Virginia Spielmann, Occupational Therapist, SPOT Founding Therapist. 


Berninger, V. W. (2001). Understanding the ‘Lexia’ in dyslexia: A multidisciplinary team approach to learning disabilities. Annals of Dyslexia Ann. of Dyslexia, 51(1), 21-48. doi:10.1007/s11881-001-0004-3

British Dyslexia Association http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/

 Special Education Support Service (SESS) http://www.sess.ie/dyslexia-section/identifying-learning-difficulties-arising-dyslexia



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