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The Informed Parent

The Strange Malady Called Learning Disability

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Sep. 11, 2000

When we talk about learning disabilities, we are not talking about a single, identifiable disorder. In fact, some believe that there are over 100 different kinds of learning disabilities. Learning disability is an illusive disorder, and has been referred to as the "hidden handicap".

Children with learning disabilities do not look different from other children. They often possess an array of skills and talents. Their disability may range from mild to severe, and it may affect one or several areas of achievement. One of the most frustrating aspects of a learning disability is that the symptoms are not consistent. On any given day children with a learning disability may or may not be able to demonstrate all that they know.

This month’s article provides a brief overview of learning disability. We will consider a definition of learning disability, causes of learning disability, how learning disability is diagnosed, and the prognosis for children with a learning disability. The October and November articles will offer in depth looks at preschool children and school age children with learning disabilities. Some of the information in the articles will be taken directly from UNDERACHIEVEMENT: REVERSING THE PROCESS by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S. and John H. Samson, M.D.

What Is A Learning Disability?

In the late 1970’s, the federal government defined the term learning disability in Public Law 94-142. As well as defining certain disabilities, this law makes educational provision for children with special needs mandatory.

The definition for learning disability in PL 94-142 is complex. What it says is that there is not one single, simple learning disability but many. It explains that the disorder involves processing problems in speaking, listening, writing, spelling, reading, and arithmetic. In other words, there is some kind of "short circuit" in the brain that makes it impossible for a child to either accurately receive information from the environment or express information in a way that shows the child can effectively use what he or she may know.

The definition indicates that perceptual difficulties may exist. This means that although a child has adequate sight and hearing acuity, the child does not understand what he or she hears and sees in a way that is usable for academic success.

The definition continues by explaining who is not included in the category of learning disability. The learning disabled are not people who are blind, deaf, physically disabled, retarded, or emotionally disturbed. They are not children who are educationally disadvantaged as a result of cultural, environmental, or economic factors.

Some children have multiple disabilities. For example, a visually impaired or emotionally disturbed child can also have a learning disability. Only when the learning disability is the key reason why the child is not academically successful is it considered the primary diagnosis.

Causes Of Learning Disability

Little is known about the causes of learning disability. The experts have some general ideas that are widely accepted, though not proven. What is known is that all learning disabilities do not stem from the same cause. The following are considered probable causes of learning disability.

  • Unexplained disorder of the central nervous system.
  • Injuries before birth, during the birth process, or during early childhood.
  • Intrauterine viral infections.
  • Oxygen deprivation during the birth process or shortly thereafter.
  • Prematurity or medical problems soon after birth.
  • Genetics—learning disabilities tend to run in families, so some learning disabilities may be inherited.

Such a small amount is known about the causes of learning disability that the focus of attention for the disorder needs to be on diagnosis and remediation, not on attempting to determine cause.

Diagnosing Learning Disability

Learning disability cannot be guessed at. Only through a formal evaluation by the school psychologist or a practitioner in private practice can a learning disability be accurately diagnosed. The primary characteristic of a learning disability is a significant discrepancy between a child’s achievement in academic functioning as measured by a standardized achievement test and his or her overall intelligence as measured on a formal intelligence scale.

Children with learning disabilities are intelligent. They have at least average and often above average IQ's. Their learning profile, however, is one of peaks and valleys. That is, there is wide variation in their abilities as measured by an intelligence scale. They may be average to superior in some areas and below average in others. The learning disabled do not possess equal or similar skills in all academic areas, and their skills are not as strong as their IQ would indicate.

A learning disability may affect spoken language, written language, arithmetic, reasoning and/or memory.

Prognosis For The Child With A Learning Disability

While a learning disability cannot be cured, when properly diagnosed children can be taught skills to compensate for their disability. Special services are available in the public school for children with learning disabilities. A resource teacher is often responsible for developing, or assisting the classroom teacher to develop, an appropriate academic program for learning disabled students. Children with learning disabilities may be served in the regular classroom or participate in a "pull out" program which means that they spend a certain amount of time each day or week with the resource teacher in the resource room. In either case, the program is tailored to each child’s individual needs.

Services may be available through learning specialists who have private practices. Your child’s pediatrician can refer you to someone in your community who has the necessary skills for working with children with learning disabilities.

Children who exhibit learning disabilities often have behaviors that need to be addressed as carefully as the academic weaknesses. They may have difficulty handling their frustration. They may be impulsive or distractible. They may be rigid or withdrawn. They may seem immature or dependent. Some children with learning disabilities have difficulty with social relationships.

When a learning disability is discovered early in a child’s school career, there is every reason to believe that the child will grow into successful adolescence and adulthood. Undiagnosed learning disabilities lead to poor academic performance and behavior problems. School is a child’s job. When the child is unsuccessful at that job, frustration and unhappiness result. Only through correctly diagnosing a learning disability and addressing the problem can the child grow into his or her potential.

Next month we will discuss learning disability and the preschool child. Signs to look for, steps to take, and suggestions for parenting will be offered.

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