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Is It a Difference, Disability, Disorder, or Dyslexia?

Posted October 26, 2021 in Articles

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Kelly Christian Clarifies LD Terminology

Is It a Difference, Disability, Disorder, or Dyslexia?

Learning differences affect one in five American children. And although these struggles are common in the classroom, the terminology used to describe them isn’t universal. "If you are feeling puzzled by your child’s diagnosis, you are far from alone," says Dr. Kelly Christian, licensed psychologist and clinical director of Lawrence School’s Schafer Center for Learning Differences.

A student with poor decoding, spelling, and reading fluency, for example, might be told they have dyslexia by a psychologist, a learning disability by their public school teacher, or a reading disorder by their pediatrician. These terms are all accurate ways to describe their symptoms—yet, the variation in nomenclature can be very confusing for students and their parents. It’s actually the setting in which the learner is identified that determines how their challenge is named.

What is a Learning Disorder?

In a clinical setting, such as hospitals, private practices, and Lawrence’s Schafer Center, psychologists and medical doctors use the term learning disorder. These words are based on diagnoses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which defines struggles with learning as unexpected underachievement. Dr. Christian elaborates, “This means the student is bright, but their academic skills are not where they ought to be compared to same-aged peers, their intelligence, or to the amount of intervention they've received.” Learning disorder is the official diagnosis, however, the DSM-5 elaborates to include the following subtypes: dyslexia (disorder in reading), dysgraphia (disorder in written expression), and dyscalculia (disorder in mathematics).

What is a Learning Disability?

In public schools, specific learning disability is the phrasing used to identify struggling learners in the IEP (Individualized Education Program) and evaluation processes. “In order to qualify for services, the district must determine if a student meets the regulatory definition of a disability. These students are then protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” explains Dr. Christian.

Traditionally public schools have been hesitant to use the terms dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia to characterize a learner. However, there has been a recent push on the national level to change this, as many believe these specific names can help parents better understand their child’s needs. This is known as the “Say Dyslexia” movement. Earlier this year Ohio’s House Bill 436, known as the dyslexia bill, passed into law; officially introducing the term into the state’s public education vocabulary.

What is a Learning Difference?

While not an official diagnosis, learning difference has become a very common way for private schools and organizations to address learning and attention disorders, including: dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. It is also used more broadly to describe individuals with ADHD and executive function struggles. This trend grew out of concern that the terms learning disorder or learning disability imply a student is incapable of learning, which isn’t true at all!

I’ve found it’s often a relief for students to know there is a name for why they are struggling in school and that educators have tools to help them improve.

Whatever You Call It, Understanding the Diagnosis is Key

Regardless of what terms are used to describe a student’s learning difference, understanding their diagnosis is key to their success. Dr. Christian explains, “The more informed parents and students are, the easier it is for them to collaborate across settings and get appropriate services.” Beyond that, she says, “I’ve found it’s often a relief for students to know there is a name for why they are struggling in school and that educators have tools to help them improve. Defining their learning difference often empowers them to embrace their brain’s unique processing. And in doing so, they build confidence and an ability to advocate for themselves in college and in life.”

The licensed psychologists and knowledgeable staff at Lawrence School’s Schafer Center for Learning Differences guide parents from all over Northeast Ohio, who seek solutions to their child’s learning and attention challenges. Learn more.

This article was written in collaboration with Wendy Wisner, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is also a frequent contributor to

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