A learning disability, also referred to as a learning disorder, is a neurological disorder that prevents a child from learning, or significantly impairs the learning process. A learning disability is not a reflection of intelligence, and a child who has one may be of average or above-average intelligence. A child with a learning disability processes information differently from other children, and has difficulty performing specific tasks. A learning disability may affect attention span, coordination, the ability to understand or use spoken or written language or to perform math calculations.
Learning disabilities often affect the brain's ability to receive, process, analyze, or store information. This can make it difficult for a student with a learning disability to learn at the same rate as other children. With early diagnosis and intervention, specific methods can be developed to address learning difficulties and help individuals overcome the challenges that they present. While in most cases, the cause of learning disabilities is unknown, research has indicated that they may be linked to genetics, medical conditions, brain development or environmental exposure.
Types of Learning Disabilities
There are many different types of learning disabilities. Dyslexia is the most common type of learning disability characterized by trouble recognizing or processing letters and the sounds associated with them. It is usually characterized by difficulty reading, writing, spelling and recalling words. A nonverbal learning disability is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty with nonverbal cues, such as coordination and body language. A central auditory processing disorder is characterized by trouble understanding and remembering language-related tasks. Some children with learning disabilities also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which makes it hard to focus. Students with ADHD are often easily distracted and have trouble concentrating, and therefore find it difficult to learn and study.
Signs of Learning Disabilities
A learning disability is not always easy to detect. Symptoms of different learning disabilities can vary and may initially include a delay in achieving normal developmental milestones as well as:
- Speech problems
- Inability to focus
- Difficulty remembering
- Inability to follow instructions
- Inability to complete simple or complex tasks
- Inability to distinguish words
- Reversal of letters, words or numbers
- Lack of physical coordination
- Socialization problems
Children with learning disabilities may also experience anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Parents should advise the pediatrician of any concerns that they may have about their child's development or behavior. Early detection of learning disabilities is crucial for successful treatment.
If a learning disability is suspected, the pediatrician will refer the child to a specialist for a thorough evaluation. In some cases, a teacher may recommend an evaluation if the child is experiencing difficulties in school. A child psychologist or learning specialist performs an evaluation that includes a full review of the child's:
- Developmental history
- Cognitive abilities
- Academic capabilities
- Behavioral strengths and weaknesses
- Social skills
After the evaluation, a specific diagnosis can be determined. The evaluator will discuss the findings with the child's parents (and teacher if applicable) and may make recommendations for treatment.
Treatment varies depending on the specific learning disability. An individualized education plan (IEP) may be created for the child to follow both at school and at home. An IEP has specific goals for the child based on her or his specific needs. It also outlines any assistance that the child will be receiving for the disability. In general, a child with a learning disability is eligible for special assistance at school and in some cases, at home. Treatments may include:
- Speech therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Extra help at school
Medication may be prescribed for a child with ADHD to help improve attention span and the ability to focus. In addition, medication may be used to treat depression or anxiety. Early intervention and treatment can be very beneficial to children with learning disabilities.