A learning disability is a disorder that inhibits or interferes with the skills of learning, including speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability. Legally, a learning-disabled child is one whose level of academic achievement is two or more years below the standard for his age and IQ level. It is estimated that anywhere from five to 20% of school-age children in the United States, mostly boys, suffer from learning disabilities (currently,most sources place this figure at 20%). Often, learning disabilities appear together with other disorders, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are thought to be caused by irregularities in the functioningof certain parts of the brain. Evidence suggests that these irregularities are often inherited (a child is more likely to develop a learning disability ifother family members have them). However, learning disabilities are also associated with certain conditions occurring during fetal development or birth,including maternal use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, exposure to infection,injury during birth, low birthweight, and sensory deprivation.
Aside from underachievement, other warning signs that a child may have a learning disability include overall lack of organization, forgetfulness, taking unusually long amounts of time to complete assignments, and a negative attitude toward school and schoolwork. In the classroom, the child's teacher may observe one or more of the following characteristics: difficulty paying attention, unusual sloppiness and disorganization, social withdrawal, difficulty working independently, and trouble switching from one activity to another. In addition to the preceding signs, which relate directly to school and schoolwork,certain general behavioral and emotional features often accompany learning disabilities. These include impulsiveness, restlessness, distractibility, poorphysical coordination, low tolerance for frustration, low self-esteem, daydreaming, inattentiveness, and anger or sadness.
Learning disabilities are associated with brain dysfunctions that affect a number of basic skills. Perhaps the most fundamental is sensory-perceptual ability--the capacity to take in and process information through the senses. Difficulties involving vision, hearing, and touch will have an adverse effect onlearning. Although learning is usually considered a mental rather than a physical pursuit, it involves motor skills, and it can also be impaired by problems with motor development. Other basic skills fundamental to learning includememory, attention, and language abilities.
The three most common academic skill areas affected by learning disabilitiesare reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some sources estimate that between 60 and 80% of children diagnosed with learning disabilities have reading as theironly or main problem area. Learning disabilities involving reading have traditionally been known as dyslexia; currently the preferred term is developmental reading disorder. A wide array of problems is associated with reading disorders, including difficulty identifying groups of letters, problems relatingletters to sounds, reversals and other errors involving letter position, chaotic spelling, trouble with syllabication, failure to recognize words, hesitant oral reading, and word-by-word rather than contextual reading. Writing disabilities, known as dysgraphia, include problems with letter formation and writing layout on the page, repetitions and omissions, punctuation and capitalization errors, "mirror writing," and a variety of spelling problems. Childrenwith dysgraphia typically labor at written work much longer than their classmates, only to produce large, uneven writing that would be appropriate for a much younger child. Learning abilities involving math skills, generally referred to as dyscalcula (or dyscalculia), usually become apparent later than reading and writing problems--often at about the age of eight. Children with dyscalcula may have trouble counting, reading and writing numbers, understandingbasic math concepts, mastering calculations, and measuring. This type of disability may also involve problems with nonverbal learning, including spatial organization.
The first step in dealing with a learning disability is assessment by one ormore qualified professionals, such as a learning specialist with a master's or doctoral degree, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. The person performing the assessment gathers comprehensive background information about the child and the family and administers several types of testing. Psychological testingconsists of IQ tests to assess a child's verbal and nonverbal intelligence and projective tests to evaluate his emotional state. Educational tests evaluate academic skills in basic areas including reading, writing, and arithmetic.Neuropsychological tests determine possible inefficiencies in brain functioning by assessing motor skills, perception, memory, and language. After the testing is completed, referral may be made to other professionals, such as a speech-language pathologist, audiologist, ophthalmologist, or psychiatrist.
The principal forms of treatment for learning disabilities are remedial education and psychotherapy. Schools are required by law to provide specialized instruction for children with learning disabilities. A remediator works with the child individually, often devising strategies to circumvent the barriers caused by the disability. The earlier remediation is begun, the more effectiveit will be. At the same time that they are receiving remedial help, childrenwith learning disabilities spend as much time as possible in the regular classroom.
While remediation addresses the obstacles created by the learning disabilityitself, psychotherapy deals with the emotional and behavioral problems associated with the condition. The inability to succeed at tasks that pose no unusual problems for one's peers creates a variety of unpleasant feelings. These feelings pose several dangers if they are allowed to persist. First, they mayaggravate the disability: excessive stress can interfere with the performanceof many tasks, especially those that are difficult to begin with. In addition, previously developed abilities may suffer as well, further eroding the child's self-confidence. Finally, destructive emotional and behavioral patternsthat begin in response to a learning disability may become entrenched and extend to other areas of a child's life. Both psychoanalytic and behaviorally oriented methods are used in therapy for children with learning disabilities.
The sensitivity developed over the past two decades to the needs of studentswith learning disabilities has extended to college campuses, virtually all ofwhich have special resource and advocacy centers for students with disabilities, including learning disabilities. Many learning-disabled students have been accommodated by special measures such as extra time on exams and classroomnote takers. However, this trend has recently produced a backlash at some colleges by persons who are concerned with declining academic standards and whoquestion whether the increasing claims of learning disabilities among college students--which have doubled since 1988--are all justified.