If your child seems bright and curious about the
world but has a problem with speech, reading, or arithmetic, he or she
may have a learning disability. Learning disabilities include a
spectrum of disorders that affect the way the brain processes
information and make it difficult to grasp certain concepts. They can
be mild or severe.
Children with learning disabilities usually have
normal or above normal intelligence but struggle with some kinds of
learning. Recognizing individual letters might be easy but putting
them together to read may be confusing. Tying shoes or fitting
together the pieces of a puzzle may be perplexing, or simple math
Because children with learning disabilities have
such a hard time mastering certain tasks, they are often frustrated,
angry, or depressed, and they may have a poor image of themselves.
Children with learning disabilities may know just what they want to
accomplish, what they want to say or write or do, but can't find a
straightforward path to do it.
Most experts believe learning disabilities are
the result of subtle neurological problems affecting the way the brain
receives, interprets, and sends information. Scientists don't clearly
understand their cause, but many believe they are related to small
abnormalities in the way the brain develops. They appear to run in
families, suggesting a genetic link. They also may result from a
mother's alcohol or drug abuse during pregnancy or serious problems
during labor and delivery.
How common are
It's hard to say exactly, because diagnosing
learning disabilities is highly controversial. Many experts say the
problem is over-diagnosed, and that only extreme cases should have a
formal diagnosis. They argue that no brain functions perfectly, that
kids learn at different rates, and that many problems resolve on their
own over time. Others, however, believe that even subtle learning
problems are worth flagging at an early age so that the child can get
The National Institute of Health estimates that
2.7 million school-age children - roughly 6% of all
school-age children - have some type of learning disability. A child
can have one kind of disability or a combination of several. Because
diagnosing a learning disability is tricky, if you're worried about
your own child, get several opinions before taking action.
What are the most
common learning disabilities,
and how do I spot them?
Learning disabilities are usually grouped into
three categories: speech or language disorders; problems with skills
such as reading, writing, and math; and a range of disorders that
don't fit any of these categories, such as difficulties with
coordination, motor skills, or memory.
Sometimes a child clearly has one kind of
disability, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia — disorders that impair
reading and math. But it's also common for children to suffer from a
combination of different disorders.
It's fairly common for kids with learning
disabilities to have trouble following directions, staying still, and
sticking to specific tasks. They may also be physically awkward, prone
to tripping or bumping into things.
Many people confuse attention deficit disorders
with learning disorders. But attention disorders, marked by being
easily distracted and fidgety, are not learning disabilities. They are
a separate problem, also linked to subtle abnormalities in the brain.
There is, however, some overlap in the two. An estimated 25 to 35
percent of children with learning disorders also have attention
How and when are
with learning disabilities diagnosed?
Learning disabilities are often detected in the
first years of school, as a child learns to talk, read, and write.
Teachers are often the first to notice a problem. But a real diagnosis
requires a formal evaluation by a specialist, preferably a pediatric
psychologist or psychiatrist with expertise in the field. These
evaluations usually aren't made until a child is 5 to 7 years old and
are repeated as the child gets older. Schools or doctors usually refer
children for a diagnosis. Even if you notice a problem sooner,
specialists generally agree that it's impossible to draw firm
conclusions from preschoolers, because learning styles and speeds are
so varied in the early years.
Once my child has
how can I help?
After an official diagnosis has been made,
children with learning disabilities are usually eligible for free
special education programs through the public schools, according to
state and federal disability laws.
This might include speech, physical, and
occupational therapy (to improve motor skills). There are special
private schools for children with learning disabilities, but these can
Learning disabilities are permanent and don't go
away. But much can be done to help a child compensate for the
disability and learn to work around the problem. Many schools and
educators have developed special teaching methods and curriculums
tapered to a child's needs. Children with learning disabilities can
and do learn.
It's also crucial to address the emotional or
psychological needs of your child. Children with learning disabilities
commonly feel "dumb" or clumsy or prone to failure. Many
parents, teachers, and specialists agree that it's important to
emphasize a child's strengths and to try not to focus too much on the
problem. All children have natural talents and abilities. A child who
has trouble learning to read may be great at drawing, making up poems,
doing science experiments, or kicking a ball.
learning disabilities need
extra self-esteem boosters, praise for their abilities,
and opportunities to shine.
Raising a child with a learning problem is
stressful. It can take a toll on parents and other siblings, who may
be jealous of the extra attention the child receives. Many families
find help through support groups or counseling.
offer a range of assistance for dealing with learning disabilities,
from educational information to online chat rooms to referrals for
Your county social service agency, school district, or
doctor should be able to provide a list of reliable organizations.
A great online source for more information can be found at the Awesome