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Summary of neurodevelopmental conditions

Brain with letters flying out of it

It is somewhat common for someone with dyslexia to have more than one condition. It is also possible to confuse the signs of different conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.

The following are brief summaries of some neurodevelopmental conditions according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013) and some examples from the perspective of an educator. Please note that these examples are in no way comprehensive; different people with the same condition can have very different characteristics and experiences.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

A person with ADHD may be predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive (and/or impulsive) or a combination of both. A person with ADHD may have difficulty with skills such as organisation, time management and/or comprehension (e.g. of instructions) and with completing tasks (APA, 2013).

An example of an adult student with ADHD

Ryan is a university student. He did not do well at school when he was younger and has come to university via a bridging/enabling course. It takes Ryan a very long time to read and often he cannot recall what he has just read. He has trouble organising his writing and finds it takes him much longer than his peers to complete written assignments. Because Ryan did not do well in school, he has gaps in his knowledge of subjects such as mathematics, which he needs in order to complete a unit on statistics. Ryan suspects he has dyslexia because of his problems with reading comprehension and decides to get a clinical assessment. He discovers that he has the inattentive type of ADHD. Ryan is both relieved to know the cause of his difficulties but is also worried that he may not be able to achieve his goals. Ryan adopts many strategies to succeed at university. He invests in noise cancelling headphones, begins using note-taking software to organise his ideas and makes regular use of academic support services. Ryan graduates but he admits it was very difficult for him.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Two important criteria for diagnosis of ASD are difficulty with communication or social interaction, and repetitive and/or limited interest and/or patterns of behaviour. The extent to which different people are affected by ASD varies quite dramatically. Some people are unable to live independently or communicate verbally. Others have no difficulty with important life skills and are able to communicate, but they may experience other difficulties with, for example, social interaction (APA, 2013).

An example of an adult student with ASD

Mike is an undergraduate student. He does quite well in his studies; however, he gets very anxious when requirements for a unit are ambiguous or inconsistent. Sometimes he contacts his lecturers and becomes angry with them when they do not give him the straightforward information that he is looking for. He frequently seeks the assistance of an academic adviser who helps him to interpret requirements and manage his communication with his lecturers so that it is sufficiently polite. These situations are not trivial to Mike and have a significant impact on his mental well-being and desire to continue with his course.

Specific learning disorder – dyscalculia

Dyscalculia involves difficulties with number sense, mathematical reasoning, calculation or memorisation of facts. Dyscalculia presents in different ways, and has different influences. It is not as commonly understood as dyslexia, but research is enhancing our understanding of its impact and potential strategies to help those diagnosed with it. (See, as an example, Dyscalculia In Children at

An example of a student with dyscalculia

Kate is studying business and has avoided maths because she struggled with it at school. She is required to engage with basic maths for a social statistics unit and finds herself struggling. She keeps getting told ‘it’s easy’, and that she should simply work harder. She feels, however, that she’s not getting it right the first time – that something is missing. She seeks tutoring from a specialist who understands that dyscalculia is often associated with poor working memory. That tutor focuses on strategies to improve working memory, including using stories, visualisation, and foundational repetition. Kate’s tutor does not let her progress until they are confident she is able to demonstrate recall of basic processes and she finds that while it is taking longer to learn concepts, going back to basics is helpful.

Specific learning disorder – dyslexia

Dyslexia refers to difficulties with written communication including reading, reading comprehension, writing and spelling. These difficulties are not related to overall cognitive ability or a lack of exposure to instruction (APA, 2013).

An example of a student with dyslexia

Tallia is a mature-age university student with a full-time job. After working for several months with an academic adviser, she admits she may have a learning difficulty but she is quite embarrassed about it. She does not wish to get a clinical assessment or access support from the university’s disability services. Tallia has difficulty with the research and reading processes – often she does not read widely enough and she does not always accurately comprehend what she reads. Tallia also requires a lot of support with organising her writing and with proofreading. Tallia’s learning difficulties and the additional toll these take on her time have a significant impact on her well-being and ability to do well in her units.

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Supporting Adult and Adolescent Students with Dyslexia

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