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Blog:  The Inside Track

What It Was Like to Be Diagnosed With a “Learning Disorder Not Otherwise Specified”

The Inside Track blog post by Beth Jacobson
May 24, 2016

Photo of Beth Jacobson.

“Do you mean like dyslexia?”

This is the question I get from many people when I say I have a learning disability. It’s also a question my parents and I have struggled to answer ever since I was a young child.

When I was 2, I was first diagnosed with developmental delays. I was far behind other kids in language development. When people said my name, I wouldn’t respond. I was barely talking.

As I got older, my language delays turned into a diagnosis of learning disorder not otherwise specified (LD-NOS). LD-NOS was this broad, loosely defined term. After each evaluation, my parents were told things like: Beth may have trouble organizing or synthesizing information. May have trouble with mechanical concepts. May have trouble understanding spatial concepts. None of this gave my parents or me a simple way to explain my struggles to others.

“So you have dyslexia?”

This time, the person asking about my diagnosis is my college professor. It’s the first week of the semester, and we’re meeting in her office. Already, my brain’s organization issues are kicking in and I’m struggling to express thoughts out loud.

Nervously, I’m wondering, how do I even begin? I worry the professor will think less of me, and say I’m just making excuses. I’m afraid she’ll simply take “not otherwise specified” to mean that I’m just generally “slow.”

What I want to tell her is that I have overlapping challenges. These issues are connected, but it’s not clear exactly how. They affect almost all areas of my life.

Organizational challenges. Motor-spatial difficulties. Dyspraxia. Slow processing speed. Auditory processing issues. These issues come up in ways I’m constantly adapting to. For example, class discussions go over my head as I try to process information. My papers are filled with typos and disconnected ideas.

It’s not because I’m rushing or not trying. It’s because typing is difficult for me, and I have trouble getting my thoughts in order.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to be ashamed of my difficulties, but it hasn’t been easy. In middle school, I was failing most of my subjects. My highest grade, in English, was barely a C+.

My exasperated parents asked, “How is that possible? You’re such a good reader!” It’s true that reading and writing come to me more easily than math, foreign languages or any activity that involves maps. But I still struggle with getting my ideas down on paper.

Because of my struggles, it was hard to feel any motivation or interest in academic work. My grades seemed to send a message that I wasn’t a “good” student.

It wasn’t until high school that things started to change. I transferred to a specialized school for kids with learning and attention issues, where I began to confront my academic challenges and fears. At my new school, I got support and individualized attention. That gave me new motivation toward my studies. I came to recognize that my ideas have value.

In college, I was fortunate to have professors who looked beyond the mechanical struggles I faced with my writing. They saw my intellectual curiosity and reasoning ability. By setting high standards, they encouraged me to sharpen my writing skills.

The initial fear I felt in the professor’s office slowly faded. Over time, I learned how to describe my learning issues and to advocate for myself whenever I got the dyslexia question. I stopped letting my fears interfere with my passion for learning. This also helped me discover a new passion for advocating on behalf of others.

Recently, I’ve seen a shift in the way we discuss nonspecific learning issues like mine. People are starting to talk more about things like executive functioning and slow processing speed.

One big change is that the term LD-NOS is no longer used. In 2013, the condition was taken out of the DSM, the manual clinicians use to make formal diagnoses. Today, LD-NOS falls under the category of “specific learning disorder” (SLD). It’s right there alongside other learning issues.

Changing the name from LD-NOS to SLD doesn’t eliminate the frustrations I face. But I felt like it was an acknowledgment of my diagnosis. It was saying that learning and attention issues don’t always fit neatly in a box. With a common diagnosis of SLD, a part of me also felt closer to the larger learning and attention issues community.

For me, the various learning and attention issues really are connected. Coming to that realization has given me a new way to understand myself. It’s also given me a new sense of self-confidence.


Want to help your child speak confidently about her learning and attention issues? Explore sentence starters she can use to self-advocate.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Beth Jacobson

Beth Jacobson is a writer and disability activist with learning and attention issues. She is based in New York City.

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