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Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities

How many people have learning disabilities?
What causes learning disabilities?
What are some common types?
What are the signs to watch for?
Can learning disorders be treated?
What help is available?

You probably know someone who just can't seem to get homework done or get good grades, no matter how hard he or she tries. Or you know a girl who is smart when you talk with her, but she can't read very well. Maybe you even have these problems yourself.

Some people have trouble in school because they have a learning disability. A person who has a learning disability is smart, but he or she has trouble learning, understanding, or using information. Having a learning disability can make it hard for you to follow instructions, pay attention, and do well in school. Some learning disabilities affect a person's ability to read, write, or speak. Others affect the ability to do math or sit still in a classroom. back to top

How many people have learning disabilities?
A little less than 5 percent of all school-aged children and teens get special education services for learning disabilities. However, not every young person who could use these kinds of services actually gets them. By some estimates, from 5 to 10 percent of all people have learning disabilities of some kind. back to top

What causes learning disabilities?
Learning disabilities are thought to be caused by subtle problems with the brain. Some scientists believe that many of these problems begin before birth. As an unborn baby's brain develops, many little things can go wrong. Some experts think that these slight errors may later show up as learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities tend to run in families, so there may be a genetic link. A mother's use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs during pregnancy can also have harmful effects on the fetus, increasing the risk that learning disabilities will develop later. In addition, slight brain damage can be caused after birth by such things as head injuries, a poor diet, and lead poisoning. back to top

What are some common types?
Learning disabilities is an umbrella term that covers a number of possible problems. The problems fall into three general groups: academic skill disorders, speech and language disorders, and other learning disorders. Here are some of the specific types.
  • Academic skill disorders
    • Reading disorder (dyslexia). Reading problems can take many forms. Some people are unable to separate out the sounds in spoken words; for example, they can't read "bat" by sounding out "b-a-t." Others reverse letters and words in reading and writing. About 2 to 8 percent of children have a reading disorder.
    • Writing disorder. Writing, like reading, involves several brain areas and functions. A writing disorder can be caused by a problem with vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, or memory. The person may have problems with handwriting or spelling or being able to put together a complete, correct sentence.
    • Arithmetic disorder. Arithmetic involves reading numbers and symbols, memorizing facts, lining up numbers, and understanding ideas such as fractions. A problem with any of these areas can affect a person's ability to do math.
  • Speech and language disorders
    • Articulation disorder. People with this disorder may have trouble controlling how fast they speak, or they may be slower than normal in learning how to make speech sounds. Such disorders occur in at least 10 percent of children younger than 8. They are often outgrown or successfully treated with speech therapy.
    • Expressive language disorder. People with this disorder have trouble expressing themselves in speech. For example, they may call things by the wrong names, or they may have trouble speaking in full, correct sentences.
    • Receptive language disorder. People with this disorder have trouble understanding certain aspects of speech. Even though their hearing is fine, they can't make sense of some of the sounds, words, or sentences they hear.
  • Other learning disorders
    • Motor skill disorder. People with this disorder have problems with coordination that affect their ability to succeed in school. They may be unusually clumsy, drop things, do poorly in sports, and have unreadable handwriting.
    • Attention disorder. People with this kind of disorder are unable to focus their attention, and many also are overly active. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the medical term for this pattern of behavior. ADHD is not considered a learning disability in itself. However, because attention problems can seriously hurt a student's ability to do schoolwork, ADHD often goes along with one or more academic skill disorders. Also, if something happens to the brain that causes one kind of learning disorder, it may also affect attention.
One way to think about different types of learning disorders is simply that there are different styles of learning. Some people learn more from reading the textbook than from listening in class. For others, the opposite is true. If a person has a learning disorder, the difference in their style of learning is extreme—they can only learn one way. back to top

What are the signs to watch for?
These are some common signs of learning disabilities.
  • trouble understanding and following instructions
  • difficulty remembering what someone has just said
  • problems with reading, writing, spelling, or math
  • trouble telling right from left
  • a tendency to reverse letters, words, or numbers
  • problems with coordination in sports, writing, or art
  • trouble with taking notes and losing homework
  • lack of study skills and organization
  • problems understanding the concept of time back to top
Can learning disorders be treated?
If learning disabilities are not found and treated, they can lead to serious problems in school that only get worse with each passing year. A child who doesn't learn to add in elementary school, for example, will not be able to master algebra in high school. When students keep having trouble in school despite trying hard, the result can be constant frustration and low self-esteem. Some students get into a lot of trouble in class because they would rather be seen as bad than stupid.

It is important to get help for a learning disability. Learning disabilities can put you at higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse. At least 35 percent of students with learning disabilities do not finish high school. In the long run, lack of a high school education and basic reading, writing, and math skills can affect a person's job and income for the rest of his or her life. By one estimate, three out of every five adults with very low reading skills have untreated learning disabilities. back to top

What help is available?
You, a parent, or a teacher may be the first to suspect that you have a learning disability. For a formal diagnosis, though, you will need to be assessed by a trained professional. If an academic skill disorder is suspected, you may be asked to take standardized tests of intelligence and academic ability. If a speech or language disorder is suspected, a speech therapist may test your pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Your vision and hearing may also be checked to rule them out as the source of your problems.

Students who have learning disabilities are entitled to special education services under the law. You, your parents, your teachers, and other learning specialists can design a learning program that meets your individual needs. Some students and parents also seek extra tutoring, counseling, or speech therapy outside the school. If you choose this path, look for someone with professional certification as well as experience working with students your age who have your particular disability. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/28/2001
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