Learning Disabilities

Learning disability, learning disorder or learning difficulty is a condition in the brain that causes challenges comprehending or processing information and can be caused by several different factors. Given the difficulty learning in a typical manner, this does not exclude the ability to learn in a different manner. Therefore, some people can be more accurately described as having a "learning difference", thus avoiding any misconception of being “disabled” with a lack of ability to learn and possible negative stereotyping.

While learning disability, learning disorder and learning difficulty are often used interchangeably, they differ in many ways. Learning disability/disorder is an official clinical diagnosis, whereby the individual meets certain criteria of a gap in a particular area of learning (i.e., reading, writing, and/or mathematics), as determined by a professional (i.e., such as via a neuropsychological and educational assessment). The difference between a learning disability/learning disorder and relative learning differences/discrepancies is in degree, frequency, and intensity of reported symptoms and problems, and thus the two should not be confused. When the term "learning disorder/learning disability" is used, it describes a group of disorders characterized by inadequate development of specific academic skills. Types of learning disorders include reading (dyslexia), arithmetic (dyscalculia) and writing (dysgraphia). A person may have one, two, or all three of these learning difficulties.

Learning disabilities can make it problematic for a person to learn as quickly or in the same way as someone who is not affected by a learning disability. People with a learning disability have trouble performing specific types of skills or completing tasks if left to figure things out by themselves or if taught in conventional ways. Individuals with learning disabilities can face unique challenges that are often manifest throughout the lifespan, however, there are many accommodations and interventions that assist in education as early as elementary school through graduate school programs (post-college).

Depending on the type and severity of the disability, interventions, and current technologies may be used to help the individual learn strategies that will foster future success. Some interventions can be quite simplistic, while others are intricate and complex. Current technologies may require student training to be effective classroom supports. Teachers, parents, and schools can create plans together that tailor intervention and accommodations to aid the individuals in successfully becoming independent learners. A comprehensive evaluation frequently helps to design the intervention and to coordinate the execution of the intervention with educators and parents. The team also frequently includes school psychologists, special educators, speech therapists (pathologists), occupational therapists, psychologists, ESL teachers, literacy coaches, and/or reading specialists.

In certain instances, the effects of having a learning disability or learning difference are not limited to educational outcomes; individuals with learning disabilities may experience social problems as well. Neuropsychological differences can affect the accurate perception of social cues with peers for example.

Many studies have been done to assess the correlation between learning disability and self-esteem. These studies have shown that an individual's self-esteem is indeed affected by his or her awareness of their learning disability. Students with a positive perception of their academic abilities generally tend to have higher self-esteem than those who do not, regardless of their actual academic achievement. However, studies have also shown that several other factors can influence self-esteem. Skills in non-academic areas, such as athletics and arts, improve self-esteem. Another important finding is that students with learning disabilities are able to distinguish between academic skill and intellectual capacity (usually takes time to process for an individual and psychological therapy can help). This demonstrates that students who acknowledge their academic limitations but are also aware of their potential to succeed in other intellectual tasks see themselves as intellectually competent individuals, which increases their self-esteem.

The causes for learning disabilities are not well understood, and sometimes there is no apparent cause for a learning disability. However, some causes of neurological impairments include heredity and genetics. Learning disabilities are often linked through genetics and run in the family. Children who have learning disabilities often have parents who have the same struggle. Other birth risk factors include children who are born prematurely or were exposed to maternal risk factors during pregnancy (i.e., smoking, alcohol use). Learning disabilities can also be caused by head injuries, malnutrition, or by toxic exposure (such as heavy metals or pesticides).

Evaluations for learning disabilities are comprehensive to make the determination of whether or not someone has this diagnosis. Aside from cognitive and neuropsychological measures to establish underlying cognitive strengths and weaknesses (i.e., memory, language, processing speed) many normed assessments can be used in evaluating skills in the primary academic domains: reading, including word recognition, fluency, and comprehension; mathematics, including computation and problem solving; and written expression, including handwriting, spelling and composition. As a trained and experienced trilingual evaluator (English, Spanish, and Greek) a compilation of tests is used to assess whether students who are English language learners have a learning disability or merely academic delays because of language barriers or environmental factors. The purpose of assessment is to determine what is needed for intervention, which also requires consideration of contextual variables and whether there are comorbid disorders that must also be identified and treated, such as emotional regulation issues or language delays.