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What Are Perceptual Disabilities?

Perceptual disabilities are one of the types of learning disorders or learning disabilities. Because they are intimately connected with learning, they are often discussed, diagnosed, and treated in connection with the child’s school environment. This article provides a basic overview of perceptual disabilities.

Specific learning disabilities can occur at any of the four stages of learning. The four stages are identified as:
  • Input (information enters the brain)
  • Integration (information is processed and interpreted)
  • Memory (information is stored and can be recalled when desired)
  • Output (information is conveyed through language or motor output)

Perceptual disabilities occur at the stage of Input. It is important to understand that perceptual disabilities have nothing to do with visual or auditory acuity: a person with perceptual disabilities may have perfect sight and hearing. It is how they perceive what they see and hear that causes the problem. This may be hard to understand for people who are used to the word perceive meaning the same as “see and hear,” but it is necessary to distinguish the meanings in order to understand the problem.

Perceptual disabilities are distinguished by the sensory area affected.

  • Visual perceptual disabilities have to do with site, and may involve  organization, position, distance, and hand-eye coordination, as well as things like focusing on what’s significant among the a group of visual stimuli and reading social cues, such as facial expressions.
  • Auditory perceptual disabilities have to do with distinguishing differences between sounds, keeping focused on the primary auditory input, or being unable to keep up with the speed of auditory input.
  • Tactile perceptual disabilities have to do with the sensation of touch, and the sense of touch may be dulled or unusually sensitive.
  • Smell and taste perceptual disabilities have to do with sensitivity to these senses and ability to make distinctions.
  • Proprioceptive perceptual disabilities have to do with the kinesthetic sense and  body awareness; problems in this area may cause a child to be clumsy.
  • Vestibular perceptual disabilities have to do with the inner ear and the body’s balance and equilibrium system.

Perceptual disorders may result from a variety of causes. Some researchers have identified a disorder known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or sometimes Sensory Integrative Disorder (SID) that may be among the conditions that result in perceptual disorders. Note that the first name given is preferred by some because the second has been confused with the abbreviations SIDS for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SPD has two manifestations: sensory modulation and sensory discrimination. These researchers connect the realm of sensory discrimination of SPD with perceptual disabilities. Research in this area is ongoing.

Perceptual Disabilities and Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines perceptual disabilities as a specific learning disability. The law says (34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10)):

“A Specific Learning Disability is  a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.”

Not included in the meaning of the term are “learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” Because of this designation, children with perceptual disabilities are eligible for special education services.

Written by Mary Elizabeth.

Sources for This Article:

Phone conversation with Dr. Jane Koomer, Executive Director of The Spiral Foundation at OTA-Watertown on 2/2/07.

pdf: Learning Disabilities: children’s Tumor Foundation -

pdf: learning disabilities (fact sheet) -

pdf: reading and learning disabilities (briefing paper) -

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