Learning disabilities are lifelong conditions that are usually diagnosed in school-aged children. Contrary to common misconception, they are not intellectual impairments. In fact, people with learning disabilities have above-average intelligence. Read on to find out the different types of learning disabilities, their signs, and how to manage them.
What is a Learning Disability?
Learning disabilities are learning problems experienced by individuals that interfere with academic learning, basic life skills and social interactions. There are over thirty different types of learning disabilities. All of these affect a student's ability to receive or process information, and how the part of the brain involved with learning processes works.
The learning differences of someone with a learning disability are rooted in abnormal brain development. These could have been caused by damage to areas of the brain related to learning and reasoning, changes in the way the brain is wired for learning, differences in chemical reactions within important parts of the brain related to learning, and so on. Causes may also include genetic factors or problems during pregnancy and birth (for example: oxygen deprivation at birth due to fetal distress).
Learning disabilities change over time and sometimes become more noticeable as children get older. Because they involve neurocognitive processes, learning disabilities do not go away; however, there are ways to help children succeed despite them.
What are the Different Types of Learning Disabilities?
Learning disability is an umbrella term for several types of learning differences. Learning disabled individuals may have trouble learning basic skills like reading, spelling, math, and learning below grade level when intelligence is average to above average. The three main types of learning disabilities that most learning disability specialists agree on are as follows:
Visual learning disabilities (VLDs)
Visual learning disabilities occur when the brain has trouble processing visual information like letters, numbers or spatial relationships between objects. A developmental screening test is used to identify children at risk for language-based learning disabilities and other VLDs, and to test their vision with common developmentally appropriate tasks that are scored accurately by even non-readers. While it can be used to screen infants for VLDs, there is no definitive test that diagnoses a child with a VLD.
It is often hard for people who have strong math skills but weak language skills to recognise if they have a VLD. And, learning disabilities may coexist with other learning problems like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and hearing loss.
Auditory learning disabilities (ALD)
Although this learning ability is characterized by a child's inability to accurately understand what they hear, it is not the result of a hearing impairment. Their problem is a disjointed network of nerves between their ears and brain. They can hear perfectly fine, but their hearing is affected by this condition. Simply put, their brains interpret sounds differently from the brains of people who hear normally.
Basic reading skills are affected by this condition, as people who have an auditory processing disorder cannot distinguish phonetics and diphthongs, which are essential to reading. Similarly, they have difficulty remembering things that have been relayed to them verbally.
Combined learning disabilities (CLD)
The educational intervention required by those with both an auditory learning disability and a visual processing disorder is double what people with only one of these common learning disabilities require. Aside from their poor visual perception causing reading disability and poor math skills, they have a difficult time understanding simple classroom instructions due to their unique executive functioning.
Symptoms of Learning Disabilities
The signs of a learning disability varies widely depending on which type an individual is experiencing. Some learning disabled individuals may have trouble learning basic skills while others may demonstrate average intelligence but still fail to meet academic expectations due to learning difficulties not included in the thirty major types of learning disabilities.
It is important for parents to look into their child's learning disability symptoms, with an evaluation from a health professional because each learning disability needs to be treated differently. For example, children diagnosed with ADHD will benefit most from medication. The most common symptoms of learning disabilities include:
- Difficulty in reading
- Math disability
- Poor spelling skills
- Difficulty learning new concepts even after repetition
- Low motivation for required schoolwork tasks due to frustration
- Difficulty learning directions quickly and accurately
- Slow processing speed causing delays in completing tasks
- Poor coordination for sports or performing fine motor skills
- Difficulty organising thoughts and ideas for writing and speaking
- Poor social skills
However, learning disabilities can also manifest in sensory processing disorder (sensitivity or lack thereof to touch, smell or hear), mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and autism spectrum disorder.
What Causes Learning Disabilities?
Current research suggests that learning disabilities stem from a genetic component and are not caused by environmental factors. Studies done with identical twins show that the twin who does not have the learning disability has virtually the same IQ as their sibling with learning disabilities. This shows there is little impact on learning from environmental influences, such as family background or schooling, because these factors would affect both twins equally.
If this was true, there might be more of a variance in IQ scores between children with learning disabilities and their siblings without learning disabilities. Modern research also suggests that multiple learning disabilities may coexist within a person with a learning disorder.
How are People with Learning Challenges Diagnosed?
Early diagnosis of learning disabilities is important for two reasons: learning disabilities can be overcome through an effective intervention and learning disabilities tend to coexist with other learning problems such as ADHD. These learning problems may mask learning disabilities and make diagnosis more difficult.
Research has shown that learning disabilities can be identified through a variety of methods such as the following:
- Psycho-educational tests
- Interviews with parents and teachers
- Observations in the classroom
- Academic skill assessment
- Teacher recommendations
A learning disability cannot be diagnosed through medical testing or typical blood or urine analysis. It's important to remember that a learning disability is not caused by intellectual disability; instead it is caused by an interruption in brain development affecting one's ability to receive, process, store, speak or retrieve information.
Some learning disabilities are diagnosed early in life when learning readiness and motor skills appear delayed such as walking and talking. Children who exhibit these types of delays should receive further testing to determine if they have learning disabilities. Other learning disabilities become apparent only when children enter school and begin to struggle learning to read, write, spell or do math.
How can Parents Help Their Child with Learning Disabilities?
First, it is important for parents to understand that learning disabilities are not the result of lack of motivation or effort. Children with learning disabilities learn differently than other children and need different types of instruction to succeed. It is also important for parents to know how their child's school will handle learning disabled students so you'll know what services your child is entitled to.
Parents can also help their children by learning more about specific learning disabilities since each type requires slightly different remediation. The following factors should be taken into consideration to ensure the wellbeing of the child:
Home learning environment
Parents should provide a stress-free learning environment where mistakes can be made without negative consequences. They should take advantage of their child's strengths and interests when possible. For example, if a child is interested in science, parents could teach them about it from an early age so the learning disability will never become a barrier to learning.
Parents can provide learning disabled children with learning experiences that match their specific learning disabilities and interests, which makes learning more interesting and fulfilling for them. Some things parents can do at home include providing their child with specialised study skills and tools such as mnemonic devices, visual aids like color-coded folders and notebooks, and creating visuals of new concepts as well.
If learning problems are noticed early in life, it is advised that a scientific, research-based intervention be started through special education services before a child begins learning skills such as reading and writing. By the time a child enters school at age five or six years old, an effective learning disability treatment plan should already be in place.