A learning disorder is defined as difficulty in an academic area (reading, mathematics, or written expression). The child's ability to achieve in the specific academic area is below what is expected for the child's age, educational level, and level of intelligence. The difficulty experienced by the child is severe enough to interfere with academic achievement or age-appropriate normal activities of daily living. About 2.9 million US children in public schools are classified as having specific learning disabilities and receive some kind of special education support.
Learning disorders are sometimes called learning disabilities, or specific learning disabilities. Most children with learning disorders have normal intelligence. Types of learning disorders include the following:
- reading disorders (sometimes called dyslexia)
- mathematics disorder
- disorder of written expression
Causes of Learning Disorders
Learning disorders are believed to occur because of an abnormality in the nervous system, either in the structure of the brain or in the functioning of brain chemicals. The difference in the nervous system causes the child with a learning disorder to receive, process, or communicate information in a different way.
Who is affected by learning disorders?
According to the US Department of Education, over 6 percent of children in US public schools (kindergarten through grade 12) have some type of learning disorder. Reading disorders are more common in children of parents who experienced a learning disorder.
Genetic predisposition, problems during pregnancy, birth, or early infancy, as well as other general medical conditions may be associated with the cause of learning disorders.
Symptoms of Learning Disorders
The following are the most common symptoms of learning disorders. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Reading disorder
A reading disorder is present when a child reads below the expected level given his/her age, grade in school, and intelligence. Children with a reading disorder read slow and have difficulty understanding what they read. They may have difficulty with word recognition and confuse words that look similar. A reading disorder is sometimes called dyslexia.
- Mathematics disorder
A mathematics disorder is present when a child has problems with skills related to numbers, such as counting, copying numbers correctly, adding and carrying numbers, learning multiplication tables, recognizing mathematical signs, and understanding mathematical operations.
- Disorder of written expression
A disorder of written expression is present when a child has difficulty with writing skills, such as understanding grammar and punctuation, spelling, paragraph organization, or composing written information. Often these children also have poor handwriting skills.
Diagnosis of Learning Disorders
The signs of learning disorders may be identified by parents or teachers when a child consistently has difficulty with any, or all, of the following:
- reading, spelling, writing, or completing math problem
- understanding or following directions
- distinguishing right from left
- reversing letters or numbers (confusing "b" and "d" or 12 and 21)
A comprehensive evaluation by educational and mental health professionals includes educational and psychological testing, as well as talking with the child and parents. A comprehensive evaluation identifies whether a child has a learning disorder as well as learning strengths and weaknesses. Results of the evaluation are used to determine educational needs, identify the best school placement, determine the possible need for medication to help with distractibility or hyperactivity, and determine the possible benefit of any additional therapies such as speech therapy or family psychotherapy to maximize the child's learning potential and quality of life.
Treatment for Learning Disorders
Specific treatment for learning disorders will be determined by the coordinated effort of your child's physician, and mental health and educational professionals based on:
- your child's age, overall health, and medical history
- extent of the disorder
- type of disorder
- your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- expectations for the course of the disorder
- your opinion or preference
Learning disorders are treatable. A coordinated effort between parents, teachers, and mental health professionals provides the basis for individualized treatment strategies that may include individual or group remediation, and/or special classes or resources.
Prevention of Learning Disorders
Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of learning disorders are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of academic difficulties and improve the quality of life experienced by children with learning disorders.