Learning Disability

Learning disabilities are disorders that affect one's ability in the domains of spoken or written language, mathematical calculation, attention, or the coordination of movements. They can occur in young children but are usually not recognized until a child reaches school age. An estimated 8 to 10 percent of U.S. children have some type of learning disability.

Learning disabilities can be lifelong conditions that can affect one's experience at school or work or in social situations. Multiple learning disabilities overlap in some people.

Some specific categories of learning disabilities include:

  • Dyslexia, which causes difficulties with word recognition, spelling, and comprehension
  • Dysgraphia, which results in impaired handwriting, impaired spelling, or both
  • Dyscalculia, which affects the ability to learn arithmetic and mathematics
  • Nonverbal Learning Disorder, marked by trouble receiving and interpreting nonverbal forms of communication such as body language and facial expressions
  • Apraxia of speech, which involves difficulty saying what one intends to say
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder, which involves difficulty with recognizing and interpreting sounds

Information-processing disorders are learning disorders related to the ability to use sensory information (obtained through seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or touching). These problems are not related to an inability to see or hear, but rather the recognition of, response to, and memory of such information.

Language-related learning disabilities are problems that interfere with age-appropriate communication, including speaking, listening, reading, spelling, and writing.

According to the DSM-5, 5 to 15 percent of school-age children across different cultures are affected by a learning disorder limiting them in reading, writing, or mathematics.

Symptoms

According to the DSM-5, Specific Learning Disorder is characterized by one or more difficulties in learning and using academic skills. The difficulty lasts at least six months despite interventions aimed at addressing it and can include difficulty with:

  • Reading (The individual may read inaccurately or slowly and with effort.)
  • Understanding the meaning of what is read
  • Spelling
  • Written expression
  • Understanding numbers or calculation
  • Mathematical reasoning

For diagnosis of a Specific Learning Disorder, the affected skills must be markedly and measurably below what is expected for the individual's age, and the difficulty must significantly interfere with performance or daily activities. The difficulty begins during school years, though it may not become fully apparent until the demands on the affected skills exceed the individual’s capacity, such as in timed tests.

The difficulties must not be better explained by intellectual disabilities—those with learning disabilities often have average or above-average intelligence—and are also not accounted for by other disorders, uncorrected vision or hearing, psychosocial adversity, or inadequate instruction or knowledge of the language used to teach.

Symptoms can range from mild—involving difficulty in one or two domains that is responsive to accommodations or support—to severe, where an individual is unlikely to learn the affected skills without intensive, individualized teaching.

Causes

While the causes of learning disabilities are not fully understood, a number of risk factors have been identified. 

Specific learning disorder seems to run in families. Individuals are more likely to have such a disorder if a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling has one. The increased risk is 4-8 times greater for a reading disorder and 5-10 times greater for a math-related disorder, according to the DSM-5.

Other factors that may increase one's risk for a learning disability include premature birth, very low birth weight, the use of nicotine, alcohol, or drugs during pregnancy, and severe deficits in nutrition or exposure to lead in infancy.

Treatment

Learning disabilities are most commonly addressed with special education. Educators may assess both a child's academic performance and potential and then teach learning skills by expanding a child's existing abilities and correcting or compensating for disabilities. Free access to special education for children with disabilities is required in U.S. public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Treatment may also involve the services of therapists who specialize in particular domains, such as speech and language. In some cases, medications may be used to increase a child's ability to focus.

The specific details of interventions for learning disabilities differ based on the type of disability and its severity, but can include specialized, intensive teaching methods and the use of audio recorders, audiobooks, word-processing programs, and other forms of technology to help compensate for a disability during learning.

References

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
  • National Institute of Mental Health
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Last reviewed 02/07/2019