A learning disability is a problem that affects how a person receives and processes information. People with learning disabilities may have trouble with any of the following:
- Doing math
- Understanding directions
Learning disabilities are common. Between 8% and 10% of children under age 18 in the U.S. may have some type of learning disability.
Learning disabilities have nothing to do with how smart a person is. Rather, a person with a learning disability may just see, hear, or understand things differently. That can make everyday tasks, such as studying for a test or staying focused in class, much more difficult. There are strategies a person can learn to make it easier to cope with these differences.
Types of Learning Disabilities
There are many different kinds of learning disabilities, and they can affect people differently. It's important to note that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders are not the same as learning disabilities.
The main types of learning disorders include:
Dyspraxia. Dyspraxia affects a person's motor skills. Motor skills help us with movement and coordination. A young child with dyspraxia may bump into things or have trouble holding a spoon or tying their shoelaces. Later, they may struggle with things like writing and typing. Other problems associated with dyspraxia include:
- Speech difficulties
- Sensitivity to light, touch, taste, or smell
- Difficulty with eye movements
Dyslexia. Dyslexia affects how a person processes language, and it can make reading and writing difficult. It can also cause problems with grammar and reading comprehension. Children may also have trouble expressing themselves verbally and putting together thoughts during conversation.
Dysgraphia. Dysgraphia affects a person's writing abilities. People with dysgraphia may have a variety of problems, including:
- Bad handwriting
- Trouble with spelling
- Difficulty putting thoughts down on paper
Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia affects a person's ability to do math. Math disorders can take many forms and have different symptoms from person to person. In young children, dyscalculia may affect learning to count and recognize numbers. As a child gets older, they may have trouble solving basic math problems or memorizing things like multiplication tables.
Auditory Processing Disorder. This is a problem with the way the brain processes the sounds a person takes in. It is not caused by hearing impairment. People with this disorder may have trouble:
- Learning to read
- Distinguishing sounds from background noise
- Following spoken directions
- Telling the difference between similar-sounding words
- Remembering things they've heard
Visual Processing Disorder. Someone with a visual processing disorder has trouble interpreting visual information. They may have a hard time with reading or telling the difference between two objects that look similar. People with a visual processing disorder often have trouble with hand-eye coordination.
Diagnosing a Learning Disability
Learning disabilities can be hard to diagnose, because there is no definitive list of symptoms that fits every child. Also, many children try to hide the problem. You may not notice anything more obvious than frequent complaints about homework or a child who doesn't want to go to school.
However, the following may be signs of a learning disorder:
- Lack of enthusiasm for reading or writing
- Trouble memorizing things
- Working at a slow pace
- Trouble following directions
- Trouble staying focused on a task
- Difficulty understanding abstract ideas
- Lack of attention to detail, or too much attention to detail
- Poor social skills
If you suspect a learning disorder, talk to your child's pediatrician or teacher about having your child evaluated. It may be necessary to see several specialists before you get a definitive diagnosis. These specialists might include a clinical psychologist, a school psychologist, a developmental psychologist, an occupational therapist, or a speech and language therapist, depending on the problems your child is having. They will perform a variety of tests and assessments to get to the bottom of the problem.
Early Detection of Learning Disabilities
Knowing the early signs of a possible learning disability can help parents get their child the help they need as soon as possible. That's why it is important to pay attention to your child's developmental milestones. Delays such as late walking or talking or trouble with socialization can be signs of a learning disorder in toddlers and preschoolers.
Treating Learning Disorders
Special education is the most common treatment for learning disorders. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all U.S. children with learning disorders are entitled to receive special education services for free in public schools.
After doing an evaluation to pinpoint where your child is having problems, a team of special educators will create an individualized education program (IEP) for your child that outlines what special services they need to thrive at school. Special educators will then help your child build on their strengths and teach them ways to compensate for their weaknesses.
Many resources are also available outside of the public school system, including:
- Private schools that specialize in treating children with learning disabilities
- After-school programs designed for children with learning disabilities
- At-home tutoring and therapy services
A learning disability doesn't have to be a roadblock to success. With the right tools, people with learning disabilities can overcome any challenge.
Parenting a Child With a Learning Disability
Finding out your child has a learning disability can be overwhelming. Many parents find the process of diagnosing a learning disability incredibly frustrating, and then once the diagnosis comes, they face an uphill battle to get their child the help they need.
The best thing you can do as a parent is simply to love and support your child. These tips can also help you help your child:
1. Learn everything you can. Get all the facts about your child's learning disability and how it affects the learning process. Research services and supportive strategies so that you'll be able to take an active role in deciding on the right treatment for your child.
2. Be your child's advocate. Work with your child's school to develop an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) -- a special plan that sets goals for your child and describes support that may be needed to reach those goals. Understand special education laws and school policies so you can make sure your child is getting the most out of school. Many services may be available, but they may not be offered until you ask for them.
4. Pay attention to your child's mood. Learning disabilities can be bad for a child's self-esteem. Keep an eye out for symptoms of depression, such as moodiness, changes in sleep or appetite, or loss of interest in their usual activities.