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Suspect a learning disability? Information and help are available

Q: My son is intelligent, but he is not doing well in elementary school, despite working really hard. He has a hard time understanding what he is reading and I am worried he may have a learning disability. What can I do to help him?

A: Learning disabilities are common and may affect up to 20% of the population. When a child has difficulty mastering specific skills over time despite a good effort, it may indicate a learning disability.

Some symptoms that may be observed with learning disorders include: being a slow reader or struggling with reading comprehension; having a hard time remembering what was just read or what was just said; reversing letters or numbers in writing or reading after the first or second grade; having poor handwriting or difficulty using scissors; showing deficiencies in coordination; having a hard time understanding instructions or staying organized; and problems with recognizing patterns.

A learning disability is a neurological problem that impacts how the brain is able to perceive and understand information.

It sounds like your son may have a specific learning disability (SLD). There are three broad categories of SLDs that include dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia.

Dyslexia is a reading disability that is a language-based processing disorder and has been an area of much research. It can affect one’s ability to read, write, spell or verbally communicate effectively. Dyslexia is NOT a vision problem and cannot be treated with any type of vision therapy.

Dyscalculia is a learning disability with regard to mathematics and can be variable in the areas of impact.

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects writing. It may involve difficulties with handwriting, spelling and expressing ideas on paper.

Learning disabilities are not a sign of lower intelligence. In fact, there have been many well-known successful people with dyslexia. Pablo Picasso, Tom Cruise, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg and Mohammed Ali have all had to learn to manage their dyslexia.

While any learning disability may be lifelong, individuals with a learning disability can be successful with supports. As a parent, you can help your son get the supports he may need to be more successful.

The first step is to contact his teacher, and possibly the school’s special education coordinator, to request an evaluation for a learning disorder. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children who have an SLD are eligible for special education services or accommodations at school.

The IDEA provides “free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, for ages 3-21 with an eligible disability.”

There are 13 qualifying conditions, including autism, hearing or vision impairment, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, SLD, traumatic brain injury, speech or language impairment, and other health impairments (which may include such issues as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder).

If he has a qualifying disorder that is adversely impacting his ability to learn, he may benefit greatly from specialized educational services. If he is eligible for special education, you will meet with a team at the school, which will include his teachers and, possibly, other professionals, to develop an individualized education program (IEP).

The purpose is to identify and implement the support services he needs to be successful and to learn effectively.

For example, he may benefit from specialized reading instruction in his regular classroom or be better served by a “pull out” time for specialized instruction.

For those students who do not qualify for special education services, another avenue of support is through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The 504 Accommodation Plan provides equal access to education and protects students with disabilities from discrimination.

To be eligible, a student must have a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity.”

The New Mexico Medical Home Portal ( has a very helpful section under “School Accommodations: IEPs, 504s & Health Care Plans” on its website for more information and resources.

It is also important to schedule a visit with your son’s health care provider to discuss this and to evaluate whether he may have other confounding factors.

For example, some kids who are struggling in school may also be dealing with such other issues as ADHD, poor sleep, anxiety, food insecurity and vision or hearing deficiencies, among other problems. It is critical to identify and treat issues that may be contributing to school struggles as soon as possible to enable kids to do their best in, and hopefully enjoy, school.

Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to