Learning disabilities are neurological disorders that interfere with the brain’s ability to store or process information. It’s a broad definition because learning disabilities can manifest in disparate different ways — affecting a child’s ability to read, write, speak, spell, compute, or understand. LDs may be misdiagnosed as ADHD, anxiety, or a host of other disorders. If left unidentified or untreated, they can cause devastating academic and social difficulties.
The high rate of underreported or missed diagnoses makes it difficult to know just how many people have learning disabilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2.4 million children are currently diagnosed with a specific learning disability and are receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Two thirds of children diagnosed with learning disabilities are male. An additional 4.6 million American adults reported living with a learning disability on the 2010 U.S. Census.
Causes of LD
The exact causes of learning disabilities are yet unknown, but research indicates they may be related to the prenatal environment. Possible causes include maternal malnutrition, oxygen deprivation, or premature labor, but these have yet to be confirmed. Studies have shown that learning disabilities are often genetic and occur with considerable frequency within extended families. They also tend to show up more often in families living in poverty — which may be related to the prenatal and postnatal environmental factors listed above.
Learning disabilities are not caused by intellectual disabilities, emotional problems, poor proficiency in English, or unqualified teachers. Despite increased awareness, misperceptions about learning disabilities still exist. Recent surveys show that 70 percent of respondents link LD to low intelligence or autism, while over a third think that lack of parental involvement can cause LD. Other incorrect assumptions point to vaccinations, too much TV, or problems with vision.
Learning disabilities can’t be outgrown, and undiagnosed LD can take a toll on mental health well into adulthood. Adults who grew up not knowing they had a learning disability often report feeling “stupid” compared to classmates, or being told by parents or teachers that they were “lazy,” “not trying hard enough,” or “not living up to their potential.” Chronic underachievement and underemployment throughout life can take its toll, with a disproportionate number of prisoners and delinquents getting diagnosed with learning disabilities.
Types of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities come in many forms. Some of the most common are:
Dyslexia: The term dyslexia refers to the specific learning disability associated with reading. Although the severity and symptoms of dyslexia can vary from person to person, common markers include difficulties with:
- Phonemic awareness, meaning the ability to differentiate between and work with individual sounds in words
- Phonological processing, or differentiating between various phonemes (or “speech sounds”)
- Reading rate, correct spelling, vocabulary, or comprehension
Dyslexia is the most well known learning disability, with surveys showing that over 90 percent of American adults have heard of it and recognize it as a real difficulty. It affects about 6 percent of the population, though some studies demonstrate that close to 20 percent may have some degree of symptoms.
Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia refers to writing-related learning disabilities, meaning both “the physical act of writing and the quality of written expression.” Those who suffer from dyslexia can also suffer from dysgraphia, but the two do not always overlap. Common indicators include:
- Trouble forming letters or spacing words consistently
- Awkward or painful grip on the pencil
- Difficulty following a line or staying within margins
- Trouble with sentence structure or following rules of grammar
- Difficulty organizing or articulating thoughts on paper
- Pronounced difference between spoken and written understanding of a topic
Dysgraphia is usually identified when a child learns to write, but it can remain hidden until adulthood, particularly in mild cases. Those with dysgraphia occasionally have trouble with other fine motor skills, like tying their shoes — but not always. In elementary school settings, it’s estimated that approximately 4 percent of children suffer from dysgraphia.
Dyscalculia: Problems with math — including counting, adding and subtracting, and memorizing tables — are referred to as dyscalculia. Common characteristics include:
- Difficulty learning number facts, doing calculations, or counting
- Problems telling time, figuring out measurements, or counting money
- Difficulty adapting to “shortcuts” and other mental math problem strategies
Estimates of the prevalence of dyscalculia vary, but most experts place it at between 3 and 6 percent of the population. It has a strong association with females with Turner Syndrome, though the exact reason for the link is not fully understood.
Living with LD
If your child (or yourself) has a learning disability, medication will not help. Learning disabilities require special assistance and a modified learning environment. Schools can test for learning disabilities, but they can choose not to — meaning parents may have to seek outside help to figure out if their child is suffering from LD.
Parents can help their child by acknowledging her strengths, helping her understand the nature of learning disabilities, and advocating for her in school. Once a learning disability is accurately identified, schools are required to provide accommodations to ensure equal access to education and related services.
“Learning disabilities are not a prescription for failure,” says Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D., Director of LD Resources at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “With the right kind of instruction, guidance, and support, there are no limits to what individuals with LD can achieve.”