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Diagnostic Challenges


Assessing learning difficulties, including Specific Learning Disorders


Learning difficulties have a variety of causes and are manifest in a variety of ways.   

Diagnosis of learning disorders may not occur early enough, or not at all during school years (or even after), if the student works hard enough to compensate and find ways to manage the challenges they face.  Many students develop a range of clever coping strategies, including a level of “cheating” – simply because they cannot cope in class any other way. However, this can become harder as the student progresses to higher levels of education or moves into a work environment.


Once it becomes apparent that a person is intelligent, yet struggling to learn, focus or remember information or instructions, trained assessors can evaluate the deficient skills required for effective learning. They conduct a thorough assessment of the person’s intellectual and educational strengths and weaknesses.


Assessment for both students and adults indicates how they process information (learn), so that they can develop strategies to manage and improve their learning and understand and explain their particular learning style to others. An assessment may also be used to support applications for Special Assessment Conditions (SACs) for those working towards qualifications, such as NCEA. 


Diagnostic Confusion


There is no official listing in any diagnostic manual called “Processing Disorder” - an umbrella term covering a multitude of different types of processing disorders.

There is no international standard of terminology, creating confusion.

There is little consensus among different professions about whether processing disorders even exist. 


Researchers have been investigating processing disorders since the 1960s.

They have shown scientifically that processing disorders do exist.

They have demonstrated that processing disorders can be remediated and how this can be done.

There is training for assessing cognitive processing problems.

Yet…. there is little training to equip teachers, tutors or therapists to remediate the problems – and most have to develop their own resources to meet the varied needs of their students.


Assessments are performed by qualified members of a variety of professions – each influenced by the training and mind-set of their own profession and the belief-system upon which it is built. As a result, diagnoses vary:

A child who struggles to pay attention for any length of time, in a noisy or busy environment or who has difficulty recalling instructions could be diagnosed by:

  • An audiologist - as having a Central Auditory Processing Disorder.

  • A speech/language pathologist – as having a Receptive Language Disorder.

  • A psychologist or psychiatrist – as having ADD or ADHD.

  • A teacher – as being badly behaved - disobedient, disrespectful and disruptive.


Diagnosing a learning disability is not always easy – and it is always costly. Parents often feel that teachers, doctors and therapists do not adequately understand the problems faced by them or their child. Some are discouraged when they appear to be blamed for their child’s performance or behaviour, or when they are dismissed as being unnecessarily concerned about their child’s lack of progress.


However, parents best know their own child, and how they differ from their siblings. If a caring parent believes that their child is struggling (despite being bright and capable), they need to persevere until they find someone willing to take their concerns seriously. Children with Specific Learning (processing) difficulties have enormous potential – which they are unlikely to achieve without intervention. They need parents who advocate for them.

Finding suitable help may take time and effort. Even experts may confuse learning disabilities with behavioural problems. If their first thought is to medicate a child, seek a second opinion (or a third or fourth!) Not all professionals are equipped (or willing) to understand, assess, diagnose, explain or remediate the problems experienced by a child.

A few famous dyslexics:


Albert Einstein - physicist

Anne Bancroft - actress

Bob May - golfer

Diamond Dallas Page - World Wrestling Champion

Duncan Goodhew - Arctic explorer

Henry Winkler – actor, director, producer

Jim Carrey – actor, comedian

Leonardo da Vinci - inventor, anatomist, artist

Maggie Aderin-Pocock - astronomer & space scientist, co-producer of 'The Sky at Night'

Magic Johnson - Basketball Hall of Famer

Michael Faraday – scientist and inventor

Mohammed Ali - World Heavyweight Campion Boxer

Nolan Ryan - pitcher for the Texas Rangers

Orlando Bloom - actor

Pierre Curie - scientist

Richard Branson - entrepreneur

Steve Redrave - Olympic Gold Medalist (rowing)

Steven Spielberg – film director

Tom Cruise - actor

Walt Disney – animation artist and businessman

Check out these links for reading about other famous dyslexics:






The diagnostic process for learning disabilities:

Diagnosing a learning disability requires testing, investigation of the student’s personal history and observation by a qualified specialist. Finding a reputable assessor is important. Ask your child's school, health insurer, doctor, friends or family to recommend reliable assessors, therapists or tutors whom they have found to be trustworthy in dealing with learning disabilities in a capable and compassionate manner.


Types of specialists who may be able to diagnose learning disabilities include:


  1. Clinical, educational, school or other psychologists or psychiatrists

  2. Neuropsychologists

  3. Speech and language therapists

  4. Occupational therapists (who test sensory disorders that can lead to learning problems)


Most publicly funded, specialist diagnostic services accept referrals only from doctors (usually GPs) or sometimes from other professionals involved with the student’s learning or health experience, including:

  • psychologists,

  • RTLBs - Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour  

  • SENCOs - Special Educational Needs Coordinators

  • Teachers

  • Speech-language therapists

  • Public health nurses

  • Plunket nurses.


A comprehensive assessment can identify what the exact processing difficulties are, how they impact learning and what can be done to improve them. Such assessments are expensive, but do pin-point the exact areas of processing impairment which require remediation. Without an assessment, maths, reading, spelling, writing and comprehension tuition may help a student to progress academically – but the underlying foundational processing skills may not be accurately targeted or trained.


Currently, publicly funded diagnostic services exist only for children and adolescents, or for adults who have an intellectual disability.  Most private diagnostic services accept self-referrals and referrals from agencies for both children and adults.  Clinical and educational psychologists use a range of assessment “tools” to evaluate a person’s complex ‘cognitive’ (thinking) processes, such as attention, perception and memory. They may also investigate whether emotional factors, such as anxiety, are aggravating or a result of learning difficulties.

Diagnostic Tools:                  

The Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities evaluate processing and memory problems in specific areas of cognitive (thinking) abilities. People can have strengths, weaknesses or average functioning in any or all of these areas. Analysis identifies individual issues and needs.

It is not always necessary (or even helpful) to label a child’s disorder.

Formal diagnosis is not always essential. Not all people want or need formal diagnosis. Some manage their lives successfully and happily without acknowledging that they might have a learning disability. If they are well supported by family, friends, teachers and tutors, formal diagnosis may be unnecessary. Others find the process of diagnosis, requiring several visits to different people in unfamiliar places, very challenging.

It is possible to change a decision regarding diagnosis at any stage. A child does not need a diagnosis to access early intervention or other educational services from the Ministry of Education.


Whilst it is helpful to know exactly what types of processing issues are complicating a student’s learning (and influencing their emotions and behaviour), it may not be beneficial to be told to be told something like: “You are a dyslexic” or “You have dyscalculia” – as if you are a abnormal kind of person, or suffer from an incurable disease. For some, this diagnosis is devastating to their confidence and they lose all hope of ever achieving any degree of success in education – or in life in general. For others, the diagnosis becomes an “avoidance key” that enables them to shun any unwelcome challenges or responsibilities. The diagnosis supplies an excuse to behave badly and burden others to tolerate their poor attitude and do for them what they can actually do for themselves.


Experiencing difficulty in some aspect of processing is not some “thing” that you have, but a weakness that can be strengthened, an impairment to be repaired, a deficiency which can be made more efficient – given the right information and assistance. All it takes is effort, encouragement, patience, perseverance – and TIME.


It is important that everyone concerned understands that every person processes sensory information differently – no-one is equally strong or weak in every area – and everyone can benefit from intervention to strengthen areas of weakness. Sometimes an area of extreme weakness is balanced by unusual strengths in other areas. Many of those who have achieved great success creatively, scientifically or academically have also battled some form/s of processing disorder.

Call Us:

0272 45 7013

182 Harewood Road, 


Christchurch 8053

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