Specific Learning Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder includes Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism at the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. People with Asperger syndrome are of average (or higher) intelligence and generally have fewer problems with language, often speaking fluently, though their words can sometimes sound formal and ideas that are abstract, metaphorical, or idiomatic may cause confusion and be taken literally. Unlike individuals with ‘classic’ autism, who often appear withdrawn and uninterested in the world around them, many people with Asperger syndrome try hard to be sociable and do not dislike human contact.

However, they still find it hard to understand non-verbal signals, including facial expressions. 

  • Life long developmental disorder 
  • Affects social and communication skills 
  • Difficulties in using and understanding language and non verbal communication 
  • Social interaction difficulties 
  • Inflexible thinking 
  • Difficulty making sense of the world

People with ASD have a delay or difficulty in three areas of development:

  1. Language skills – they have trouble understanding and using spoken language and non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language.
  2. Social behaviour – they have trouble understanding social interactions, which affects their ability to play or interact with others.
  3. Cognitive and thinking skills – they have trouble thinking and behaving flexibly, and may engage in restricted, obsessive or repetitive behaviours.
As children grow and develop, there are a number of milestones they usually reach in these three areas. A person with ASD will have a delay or difficulty in all three areas of development.

ASD is thought to affect one in one hundred New Zealanders.Every person with ASD is different.

They might have:        
  • severe problems in each area
  • mild problems in each area
  • more difficulty in one or two areas.

These difficulties will vary as they age. They also depend on factors such as their gender, personality, family and cultural circumstances, and intellectual ability.

Getting help early is good for your child’s development.

Recognising the disorder:

If you think your child might have ASD, or if you’re concerned about their development, talk to a health professional. They’ll be able to assess your child and, if necessary, refer them for diagnosis.

Features of the disorder can vary widely from one person to another; there is no single feature that defines either autism or Asperger syndrome.

For example, a child with an autism spectrum disorder may make eye contact, speak with perfect grammar or put an arm around another child who is crying. Occasional behaviour such as this doesn’t exclude an autism spectrum disorder; it’s the overall pattern that’s relevant, not the intermittent flashes of “normality”.

The degree to which people with an autism spectrum disorder are affected varies, but all those affected have impairments in social interaction, social communication and imagination. This is known as the “triad of impairments”.

Social interaction

People with autism spectrum disorders have difficulties with social relationships. They may, for example, appear aloof and indifferent to other people or passively accept social contact, even showing some signs of pleasure in this, but rarely making spontaneous approaches.

Social communication

People with an autism spectrum disorder also have difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example not fully understanding the meaning of gestures, facial expressions or tones of voice.
They also find it hard to appreciate the social cues and pleasure of communication. They do not understand language is a tool for conveying information to others. When they do use language it is generally used very literally with an idiosyncratic, sometimes pompous, choice of words and phrases and limited speech.


There are difficulties in the development of play and imagination, for example children do not develop creative “let’s pretend” play in the way other children do. They have a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively.

Children and adults tend to focus on minor or trivial things around them – an earring rather than the person wearing it, the wheel of a toy rather than the car itself. They also tend to miss the point of pursuits involving words, such as social conversation, literature, especially fiction, and subtle verbal humour.

Repetitive behaviours

In addition to this triad, repetitive behaviour patterns are a notable feature, as is a resistance to changes in routine. People with autism spectrum disorders often become obsessed with particular objects or behaviours, focussing on them to the exclusion of everything else.

Sensory Issues

People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder may have “sensory issues” or a difference in sensory integration, where they can be either hyposensitive or hypersensitive to outside stimuli.

This means that a person can be very sensitive to particular sounds, light, smells and touch etc. Particular sensations may be very absorbing and pleasurable, others may be perceived as unbearably intense, stressful and even painful. The anticipation of such an experience can lead to extreme anxiety or panic. There may also be a lack of sensitivity and therefore response to pain. These type of experiences can often be very bewildering to parents, teachers and other ‘neurotypicals’.

Special abilities

Some people with autism spectrum disorders, who may be severely disabled in most ways, will sometimes display talent for learning areas such as music, mathematics or technology. Some have a remarkable memory for dates and things that particularly interest them.


Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) is a hearing disorder in which the ears process sound normally but the brain cannot always understand or ‘hear’.

Students who have difficulties in this area may have:

  • an inability to retain more than one or two items of information when presented orally
  • difficulty recalling information after a period of time, unless given specific support strategies
  • difficulty in recalling information in the correct sequence
  • visual/spatial strengths (learn better from charts, diagrams, videos, demonstrations and other visual materials)
  • a good visual memory (be able to visualise information and present it in the form of mind-maps, diagrams, charts, posters, illustrations)
  • kinaesthetic strengths (learn better when actively involved in a lesson through movement and touch).

Activities to develop auditory memory skills: (will benefit all children)

  • Repeat and use information – child asked to repeat a sequence of two or three colours and then thread beads or arrange cubes using that sequence.
  • Reciting action rhymes, songs and jingles. Use the actions to support the recall of key learning points.
  • Memory and sequencing songs – songs like Old Macdonald, Ten Green Bottles, One Man went to Mow.
  • Story recall and/or draw the main events in well-known, patterned stories e.g. Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Man.
  • I went to market and I bought… – using real shopping items or pictures. Child has to recall the sequence of items bought.
  • Recall simple sequences – of personal experiences and events.
  • Instructions – recall and repeat task instructions containing one, then two, then three elements.
  • Drawing 1 – story sequences from memory.
  • Drawing 2 – the sequence of a simple activity.
  • Recall days and events of the week.
  • Alphabet sequences – dot to dot, games and puzzles.
  • Alphabet name game – recall the sequence of the alphabet using names.
  • Draw a time sequence – flow chart of the main events in the story.
  • Organise sentences – in the correct sequence, relating to a school event, using words and phrases that signal time as cues (e.g. after that, next)


This is a term used to indicate a lack of ability to perform mathematical calculations. This condition is associated with neurological dysfunction.

 Students with Dyscalculia have difficulty processing numbers. It is a significant learning disability, often showing up in students with other learning difficulties, which can mask the Dyscalculia. It is not related to any lack of intellectual ability.

 If a student has difficulty following lines of text or numbers, working out problems is impaired. For example: a ‘+’ sign can look very much like an ‘x’ , which makes solving problems such as 4+1 become 4×1 which results in a different, and wrong, answer. Although research is improving on why this happens, remediation may require a variety of techniques to be assessed for their effectiveness with an individual learner.

 Some indicators of Dyscalculia are:

Inability to learn how to tell the time on an analogue clock, after a reasonable period of instruction

  • Inability to understand the size of numbers
  • Inability to count change and understand the actual amounts of money involved
  • Normal or advanced language and other skills, often good visual memory
  • Poor sense of direction, easily disoriented
  • Common mistakes in working with numbers
  • May have difficulty learning musical concepts, keeping track of scores and players during games such as cards and board games

Strategies that may help:

  • Big screen calculators are recommended to check answers
  • Highlight mathematical symbols in colour – always the same colour – to help recognition of the mathematical action required (that is, + – x ÷)


Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that involves writing. It can involve difficulties with the physical aspects of writing (e.g. awkward pencil grip or bad handwriting), spelling and/ or putting thoughts on paper.

Some of the common signs of dysgraphia are:

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Wrong or alternate spellings
  • Misplacing words
  • Fatigue when writing (often a tight pencil grip and white knuckles)
  • Awkward or cramped pencil grip
  • Finds difficulty planning writing task
  • Difficulty with grammar and organising sentences

An assessment with a paediatric occupational therapist may be useful if you suspect a child has characteristics of dysgraphia to gain individualised strategies.


Difficulties with literacy and numeracy are a common feature of dyslexia, and the most immediate attribute is a problem in decoding words and their meanings. However, this is still only one aspect of a broader spectrum of difficulties affecting skills such as auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and concentration. Some of these can make it especially challenging for individuals to follow instructions, turn thoughts into words and finish work on time.

Brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown that while it is common to use the ‘verbal’ left side of our brain to understand words, dyslexic people use the ‘pictorial’ right side – making them slower to process and understand language, but stronger in creative areas like problem solving, empathy and lateral thinking.

International dyslexia expert and Dyslexia Foundation consultant Neil Mackay notes that MRI technology shows that the dyslexic brain works differently – not wrongly but definitely in a different way. In a typical brain, most of the modules for writing, spelling and aspects of reading tend to be in the left brain, with the right brain having modules for more visual process, like recognising words quickly without needing to break them down. The brain of a dyslexic child or adult may not have this typical “left/right” organisation, with various modules appearing in different places.

This different organisation is probably the reason for the well-established tendency for dyslexic people to “see” things differently and it may explain the numbers of successful entrepreneurs and inventors who are dyslexic. But it can also explain the problems many dyslexics experience in acquiring basic literacy skills – the different organisation makes it harder for some tasks to be done automatically – effectively the brain has to re -route and change direction in order to use some of the modules. In consequence learning to read and spell at an ability appropriate level may take much longer. On the flipside, these different “journeys around the brain” often result in many more links and connections which may, in turn, result in enhanced creativity and problem solving ability.

Dyslexic children often exhibit a pattern of good days and bad days. On good days difficulties may almost disappear and the child will be able to work effectively and achieve success. However, on the bad days even familiar words may appear strange and need to be worked out from scratch.

As dyslexics think in an atypical way, dyslexia can be characterized as a learning preference. This means appreciating that a child with a differently wired brain naturally prefers to receive, process and present information in the way that makes the most sense to him or her. It is also good to understand that dyslexia is for life, it is therefore inappropriate to talk about ‘cures’. Rather it is about tapping into potential and making the most of the incredible creative possibilities that properly addressed dyslexia can offer.



What is Dyspraxia?

Dyspraxia is a neurologically based disorder of the process of ideation, motor planning, and execution, which may affect any or all areas of development. It is inconsistent, and affects each person in different ways, at different stages of development, and to different degrees. Dyspraxia can be acquired through damage to the brain by accident, stroke, or illness, or it can occur from an early age, thus impairing development, and from no obvious cause. It is a hidden disorder as, under normal circumstances, children with Dyspraxia may appear no different from their peers. Diagnosis can only be made by an appropriate professional.

The human brain is made up of lots of connections that are like power lines. These also connect with your body. When you have dyspraxia some of these connections are not working properly. This means your body can find it difficult to do what your brain tells it to. In order to make your body do what your brain is telling it to, you may have to practice doing things a lot.

Children with Dyspraxia may have difficulty in the following areas:

  • Poor writing and drawing abilities.
  • Fine and/or gross motor skills- dislikes games, Physical Education, ball activities and playing outside.
  • Messy eating and drinking.
  • Slow or poor at dressing.
  • Slow learning e.g. to ride a bike.
  • Very distractible.
  • Falls and bumps into things a lot — bruises on legs.
  • May be disruptive in the classroom.
  • Difficulty standing on one leg, hopping or jumping.
  • Difficulty copying text from book or whiteboard.
  • Sequencing, affecting most areas of development.
  • Thought; with a normal intelligence, these children may have difficulty in planning and organising thoughts.
  • Language skills, word recall, communication difficulties. Language may be impaired or slow to develop.
  • Following instructions.
  • Social skills.
  • Emotional immaturity.


Developmental Dyspraxia is a neurologically based impairment or immaturity of the organisation of movement. Associated with this may be problems of language, perception and thought. Affected children have a normal intelligence for their age but may have difficulty in both processing information and in communicating what they know or understand. It affects each child differently; therefore each child’s difficulties are unique to him/her.

What will help?

·         A difficulty of recalling stored information is a difficulty of process, not of memory or of laziness. He would if he could, but he — sometimes — can’t and learning takes 20 times the normal effort.

·         Information learned may not be reliably recalled — for neurological reasons.

·         Instructions may need to be broken down and simplified. Impaired sequence can affect every area of development — spelling, writing, maths, gross and fine motor skills, following instructions, rules to games.

·         Patience and a multi-sensory approach will help.

·         Try gently repeating or leading the memory until previous learning can be recalled. A rhythmical, phonological approach to reading, writing, maths, etc., helps.

·         Self-esteem is constantly at risk.

·         Brain Gym exercises, sensory-motor exercises, and mind-mapping may all help.

·         Try to ensure that expectations are communicated to the child clearly and concisely and are understood.

·         Try to give the child predictable routine and firm guidelines. Sudden changes in routines can cause major problems for the child with Dyspraxia.

·         Explain the limits simply, ensure that they are constant and that the child has understood, and be prepared to repeat yourself calmly.

·         Simplify choices, and don’t offer them if you do not intend to give them.

·         Inappropriate behaviour is often out of the child’s control. It needs to be stopped briefly and with understanding.

·         Prepare the child with warnings of ‘Time to stop in five minutes’, etc. He needs clear plans of action.

·         If the child is engaged in an activity to which he has been directed, make sure he really does know what to do, how and in what sequence. He may need extra or more time at an activity in order to finish it.

·         The child may have great difficulty in waiting for adult attention. This is because his processes are in full flight; if he waits too long, the learning moment may be gone.

·         The child with Dyspraxia may be very distractible, so a simplified environment may help.


Eye Movement Problems, also referred to as Eye Tracking Problems,exist when one or both eyes do not move smoothly, accurately, and quickly across a line or from one object to another. Additionally, this includes the inability to fixate (lock ones’ eyes) onto a single target (like a word on a printed page).

An individual with an eye movement or tracking problem might see printed words like this:

If a person’s eyes cannot properly “track” from word to word smoothly and seamlessly, reading, writing, and copying are going to be major problems.

Technically, eye movement and tracking problems are referred to as “oculomotor dysfunctions” (or “OMD”). They are often present very early in a child’s vision development, but do not become problematic until a child is asked to read, copy, and attend to tasks which require good eye movement control skills. Loss of reading place on page, skipping lines, and misreading short words or word beginnings/endings are typical signs of an eye movement dysfunction.

Often children with eye movement, focusing, and eye-teaming dysfunctions are unfairly accused of “not paying attention”, “not trying hard enough”, or just being “lazy learners”. Misdiagnosis of dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, or other learning disabilities often will occur.

However, children cannot overcome these functional conditions without help, and forcing them to try to focus on blurred or jumping words (even though they can’t describe it) will often cause them to avoid reading and copying.

Follow the link to see how some eye exercises can help with processing, perception and tracking skills. These are all extremely important for your child’s ability to learn successfully.

Language disorders

Difficulty with the production of speech is the most easily identified language concern.
Errors to look out for include:
~consistent substitution of one sound for another e.g. “t” for “s”, so “sun” becomes “tun” and “sand” becomes “tand”
~problems with cluster production e.g. “bridge” becomes “bidge”, “spoon” becomes “poon”
~persistent problems with intelligibility or “jumbled” speech

Expressive Language Disorder

Children with an expressive language disorder have problems using oral language or talking. Their understanding of language is likely to outstrip his/her ability to communicate with the spoken word. There may be a reticence to talk and they may resort to pointing or gesturing to get their message across. Expressive language may lack variation in intonation or volume. Imaginative play and social use of language may be further impaired. Children may have difficulties in describing, defining and explaining, and in retelling stories/events. Limited vocabulary may result in them using empty phrases and non-specific words. Expressive language difficulties may impact on the child’s abilities in relation to writing, spelling, composing sentences/compositions and answering all but the most straightforward of questions. There may be evidence of omission of function words such as ‘the’ and ‘is’, and grammatical markers such as tense endings. Difficulties may be noted in the formulation of full sentences and in the understanding of multiple word meanings. Difficulties may occur in establishing and maintaining peer relationships.

Points to look out for include:
~omitting parts of sentences, especially the small function words such as the and is, or grammatical markers on the ends of words such as ing
persistent errors with tense marking e.g. buyed for bought
limited vocabulary development and difficulty in learning and remembering
~consistently “stuck for words” even with familiar vocabulary

Receptive Language Disorder

Children with a receptive language disorder have problems understanding oral language or in listening. They may have difficulties processing and retaining auditory information, and in following instructions and directions. Difficulties understanding what is said may be exacerbated in group discussions. Difficulties in answering questions may be related to a limited understanding of question forms. Students may have difficulties filtering out background noise and have difficulties with verbal reasoning. Difficulties remembering strings of words and difficulties with sound discrimination may also be evidenced. Language limitations may also interfere with topic maintenance. As a result of comprehension difficulties, students may experience difficulty with turn taking in conversation. There may be pragmatic difficulties such as poor understanding, poor use of tone, facial gesture and body language, and poor eye contact. Difficulties may occur in establishing and maintaining peer relationships.

Points to look out for include:
~difficulty in following instructions
~attention problems, especially in large groups
~difficulty in answering questions
~behaviour problems


Phonological awareness is the ability to be aware of sounds within words and to be able to break down words into syllables and into phonemes. The activities listed here can help develop phonological awareness and will benefit all children.

  1. Syllable count – say the word (eg. yesterday), then use fingers to count the syllables (yes/ter/day).
  1. Finish the name – adult to say the first syllable of a two syllable name (eg. Hen…), then ask the pupil to complete it (Henry).
  2. Finish the word – adult to say the first syllable of a two syllable word (eg. zeb…) then ask the pupil to complete it (zebra).
  3. I spy 1 – initial sounds of everyday items.
  4. I spy 2– ‘I went to the zoo/park/seaside and saw something beginning with…’ (initial sounds).
  5. Pairs – matching pictures to initial sounds.
  6. Bingo – matching pictures to initial sounds.
  7. I spy 3 –Sound/picture mapping – match picture to sound by drawing lines.
  8. I spy 4 – initial CV (consonant-vowel) blending (I am thinking of something beginning with ca….
  9. Missing vowels – helps the child to become aware that there could be more than one choice of vowels for each word (eg. b-t – bat, bet, bit, but).
  10. Rhyme families 1 – collect rhyming pictures (‘Can I have a picture that rhymes with…’).
  11. Rhyme families 2 – collect rhyming words (‘Can I have a word that rhymes with…’).
  12. Rhyming cloze (oral) – using traditional rhymes, action rhymes, songs and jingles.
  13. Tongue twisters – initial sounds and consonant blends (eg. six silly swans swam out to sea).
  14. Odd word out – both oral and written (eg. ring, sing, song, thing).
  15. Compound word pairs – collect word pairs (eg. sea/side, tea/bag).

visual memory

Visual memory is the ability to recall information that has been presented visually. The activities listed here can help develop visual memory and will benefit all children.

Activities to develop visual memory skills:

  1. Recall object features – let the child look at an object and talk about its features. Then take the object away and ask them to recall some of its features.
    2. Recall picture details – let the child look at a picture and talk about the details. Then take the picture away and ask them to recall some of the details.
    3. Complete the shape/picture – show the child a shape and then give them an incomplete drawing of the same shape. Ask them to complete the shape from memory.
    4. What’s missing? – show the child two similar pictures and ask them identify what is missing from one of the pictures.
    5. Kim’s game – place some everyday objects on a table. Show them to the pupils for about a minute, then cover them and see how many each can recall. This can also be played by taking one object away and asking the pupils to identify the object that is missing.
    6. Recall and sequence 1 – a series of three to four coloured shapes.
    7. Recall and sequence 2 – a series of three to four pictures (eg. everyday situations, life sequences).
    8. Recall and sequence 3 – a series of four pictures (telling a story).
    9. What happens next? – complete pictorical action sequences related to everyday situations.
    10. Recall and sequence 4 – a series of three to four words in a sentence.
    11. Visual memory spelling games – using the look, cover, remember, write, check strategy with simple high frequency words.