In both the literature and in common usage, the terms learning “disorders” and learning “disabilities” are frequently used interchangeably. The dictionary definition of learning disabilities is that they are “any of various conditions that interfere with an individual’s ability to learn.” The legal definition of a specific learning disabilities (referred to as an SLD) is as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding, perceiving, or using language or concepts either spoken or written.”
In the past, children and adults who had learning disorders were often characterized as being lazy, lacking motivation, malingering, refusing to pay attention, or stupid. Most people are now aware that that the presence of a learning disorder does not indicate any of these traits. Experts are now aware that most people with learning disabilities are actually of normal or above average intelligence. However, the learning disability can impede a person’s progress and there may be a large gap between that person’s potential and actual achievements.
Problems Associated with Learning Disorders:
The stress of having a learning disorder goes well beyond the area of learning and can cause both social and emotional problems. If children cannot express themselves or understand nonverbal cues from their peers, they can be shunned or even bullied. This can create depression and/or anxiety which in turn schoolwork and peer interaction become even more of a challenge.
How Common Are Learning Disorders?
According to experts in this field, nearly 3 million American school-aged children have been diagnosed with one or more type of learning disorder. Although information about the numbers worldwide is sparse, studies in the United Kingdom have shown that over one-third of the total population is affected by learning disorders.
Research has suggested a number of very different possible causes of learning disorders: endocrine gland dysfunction, substance abuse during pregnancy, prenatal exposure to infectious diseases such as the flu or to toxins as in lead poisoning, problems during childbirth, brain damage and/or physical accidents. Experts believe that a combination of these may result in the development of the disorder. Some studies have found that there can be a genetic predisposition; most children who have learning disorders have family members with the disorder.
There are number of conditions included in the broad category of learning disorders. Dyslexia is one of the most well-known learning disorders which is characterized by a difficulty in processing language. It can cause problems with reading, spelling, writing and speaking. Dyscalculia, or math disorder, does not just cause problems with calculations, but also with understanding time or using money. Similarly, individuals with the writing disorder dysgraphia experience difficulty when trying to organize ideas as well when attempting to write and spell.
A child with dyspraxia, which is also called sensory integration disorder or SID, can have problems with hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity and balance, making the playground or physical education classes difficult. Other learning disorders include auditory and visual processing disorders, the first causing difficulty in hearing the differences between sounds and the latter making it hard to interpret visual information such as maps, charts, symbols and pictures. Both cause problems with reading, and visual processing disorder makes math a trial.
There are no cures for learning disorders and they can present a lifelong struggle for the people affected with them. However, there are many methods and resources available for helping people overcome the challenges of a learning disorder. In schools, remedial education programs are available and can very effective. However, parents or caregivers usually play the most important role in treating learning disorders. By giving the child extra attention, the parents can help the child overcome some of the difficulties from the disorder.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind acts were passed to ensure that disabled children were given the instruction and the services that they need to succeed both in school and in their adult lives. IDEA governs the ways in which states and public agencies provide services such as early intervention and special education to nearly 7 million children from infancy through their college years. Each child served under this act is provided with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The No Child Left Behind Act ensures that the schools are held accountable for the child’s progress as outlined in that program.
Each of the specific types of learning disorders has its own signs. For example, children with dyslexia will have troubles with letter reversals, like “dog” instead of “bog” or word reversals such as “tip” instead of “pit”. Other learning disorders may present with difficulty memorizing words or numbers. A child may struggle with any new material and make wild guesses as to its meaning. It is important to discuss these signs with a doctor to determine whether they are normal difficulties or could be from a learning disorder.
Diagnosing learning disorders in children can be very difficult because of the varying rates of development in children. Further, some gifted children with high IQs can be misdiagnosed as having a learning disorder because they may have unusual ways of learning. To get an accurate diagnosis of a learning disorder, it is important to seek an experienced specialist and follow up the diagnosis regularly.
“Understanding Your Child’s Puzzling Behavior: A Guide for Parents of Children with Behavioral, Social, and Learning Challenges”, written by Steven Curtis, has received excellent reviews from parents seeking information about understanding and helping their children.
The Learning Disabilities Association of America (www.ldanatl.org/about/index.asp) also can provide information about diagnosis and treatment options as well as the best way to go about finding therapists in your area.
Kaplan, H.I., &Sadoc, B.J. (1996). Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.
Rubin, S.E., &Roessler, R.T. (2001). Foundations of the Vocational Rehabilitation Process. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, Inc.