DSA: the alarm bells

In this article, Dr. Francesca Saraceno , Psychologist and Psychotherapist from Genoa, explains what SLD (specific learning disorders) are and how to recognize them, illustrating the alarm bells and risk factors in a clear and simple way. A practical guide where parents can clarify a current issue and increasingly the subject of discussions and comparisons.
I thank Dr. Saraceno for this invaluable intervention and, in case you want to deepen the subject, I invite you to contact her directly by email ([email protected]) or by mobile phone (3476636594). “

It is possible that unsatisfactory academic results are attributed to the poor will of students, especially if they are particularly intelligent. Today, however, we know that in the face of adequate commitment and good cognitive skills, specific difficulties can arise in implementing the processes of reading, writing and / or calculating, so that these activities become very complicated and tiring, triggering different emotional reactions that they can oscillate on a continuum that goes from insecurity accompanied by a drop in motivation to study on the one hand, to rebellion and intolerance to rules on the other. Discover that certain seemingly inexplicable difficulties have a motivation, it allows children and young people to find an explanation for their difficulties and adults to provide them with the most suitable tools to face them. With a view to prevention, the early identification of signs that could result in a specific learning disorder is the ideal to aim for in order to promote serene school careers.

Learning Disorders are various and different from each other and in order to recognize them we must first of all know them. The disorders Specific Learning (DSA) have difficulties neurobiological origin of the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, not justified by cognitive limitations. Let’s see them briefly.

DYSLEXIA : Difficulty reading aloud correctly and quickly;

DISORTOGRAPHY : difficulty in correctly translating the sounds that make up the words into graphic symbols;

DISCALCULIA : difficulty in calculation skills;

DYSGRAPHY : difficulty in the graphic realization of the writing.

In line with the Clinical Recommendations on SLD ( revision of the Consensus Conference, 2007 ), the high variability among children in the acquisition times of the skills underlying the learning, in order to avoid a false positive, makes it necessary to wait for the end of the second grade. of Primary School before the issuance of a diagnosis of Specific Learning Disorder, and until the end of the third grade in the specific case of Dyscalculia.

Having said this, in the perspective of prevention , it is important to know that already at the age of Kindergarten it is possible to carry out an assessment of the learning prerequisites, offering children specific tests to evaluate those skills that precede the acquisition of school learning. The prerequisites are basic skills that allow you to learn more complex concepts, contents and skills; for example, oral language is a prerequisite for reading, just as counting is a prerequisite for calculation skills.

Having clarified what and what SLDs are, let us dwell on the risk factors , i.e. those elements that could increase the likelihood of difficulties in acquiring some school skills and on the alarm bells of such difficulties, which should be paid particular attention.

To the question “What are the risk factors associated with ASD and / or the development of ASD?” , the document relating to the Clinical Recommendations of the ISS (2011) reports in order of importance the results of the research that found a positive association with ASD, as follows:

  • Exposure to more than two general anesthesia (postpartum) within the fourth year of life;
  • Previous diagnosis of speech disorder;
  • In males the risk is about 2.5 times higher than in females;
  • Parental history of alcoholism or substance use disorder
  • Familiarity, or presence in the family of other people with SLD;
  • Prenatal exposure to cocaine.

The alarm bells are traits, often common and recurring, that could be signs of specific learning difficulties. The child may have difficulty:

  • in memorizing and retrieving sequences: days of the week, months of the year, seasons, alphabet;
  • in distinguishing left and right;
  • in reading the clock with the hands;
  • keeping in mind information just received;
  • in memorizing the dates, geographic elements and specific terms of school subjects;
  • in the planning and organization of activities;
  • in orienting oneself in space and time;
  • in maintaining adequate attention spans;
  • in carrying out tasks that require prolonged effort;
  • in achieving school results appropriate to the commitment to study;
  • in keeping the diary up-to-date
  • in keeping school materials in order;
  • in acquiring autonomy in managing school commitments;
  • in skills that require fine motor skills, such as tying shoes or buttons.

We now turn our attention to further signs that can be found by the Primary School, which should orient us towards a diagnostic study:

When he reads:

  • confuses letters that appear graphically similar (eg: mn; bdqp; ae);
  • confuses letters that sound similar (ex: td; fv; pb);
  • reverses the letters (“around” instead of “around”), omits or adds them;
  • reads a word correctly at the beginning of the page, but can read the same word in different ways before reaching the end of the passage;
  • he reads the first letters and “guesses” the word, sometimes making a mistake;
  • skip lines and / or words;
  • he reads slowly, sometimes spelling out.

When he writes:

  • exchange similar sounds by form (mn; bd) or by sound (pb; vf);
  • omits some letters, syllables, or parts of words or adds them (“babola” instead of “doll”, “cicloeta” instead of “bicycle”);
  • unites (“lorso” instead of “the bear”) or separates (“follows” instead of “chases”) unduly words;
  • makes spelling errors (eg: “picollo” instead of “small”);
  • it may have a barely legible graphic line, with difficulty especially with italics;
  • makes numerous mistakes in copying from the blackboard or other notebooks;
  • may inadequately use the space on the sheets

In mathematics:

  • wrong in writing numbers and confusing mathematical symbols;
  • has difficulty in enumerating, changing tens and / or omitting numbers;
  • it is slow in retrieving the results of calculations which should be quick (2 + 2 = 4) and has not automated the multiplication tables;
  • makes mistakes in the procedures (column calculations, expressions etc…);
  • has difficulties in managing space and therefore problems with the queuing of operations;
  • troubleshooting is difficult.

It deserves a separate note, to dwell on the signs that can raise doubts from the point of view of behavior . It is possible that the frustrations triggered by constant and repeated frustrations experienced in the school environment as a result of unrecognized and consequently untreated learning disabilities, lead the child to have difficulty in regulating his own behavior and to accept and follow the rules set by parents and teachers, effectively compromising his well-being both at home and at school, as well as the whole family and the class group in which he is inserted.

It is important to underline that no isolated criticality indicator can be traced back to a certain forecast of the presence or future appearance of a learning disorder and that at the same time it is also important to evaluate the protective factors . Protective factors are individual and / or environmental factors that can reduce and mitigate the effects of risks and that favor the development of skills and strengthen the individual against adversity. For example, parental involvement in school activities can be a protective factor.

In conclusion, if it is true that it is never too late to clarify the reasons underlying the learning difficulties (this can in fact also happen in adulthood), with a view to prevention, we remind you that already at school age Maternal it is possible to carry out an assessment of the learning prerequisites. The expert to entrust with this delicate work is the Psychologist or Neuropsychologist with specific training in this area. Networking is fundamental, in which the child surrounded by family, educational agency and specialists must be placed at the center. Alongside the psychologist, the speech therapist is equally important, to whom the baton is passed at the moment of rehabilitation in a symbolic relay race in favor of the child. An early diagnosis and an equally timely rehabilitation intervention play a primary role for the overall development of the child, from the cognitive to the affective level. It is also possible that the evaluation, once carried out, does not reveal the presence of an SLD, but of other problems: it will have been very useful to have identified the cause of the difficulties encountered daily and to be able to be oriented in the most appropriate way to manage and face them.


by Abdullah Sam
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