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Learning Disabilities

three teenage girls with arms around each other smiling

Imagine always feeling behind at school and in everyday life tasks. You study harder than all your friends but no matter how many times you read or reread the material, you can’t remember it. You feel doomed to get C’s no matter how hard you work. Meanwhile, some of your friends hardly study at all and still ace the tests. It’s just not fair. More than anything, you wish you were smart.

Learning disabilities are brain-based disorders that affect the brain’s ability to receive, process, analyze and store information. People with learning disabilities may have difficulty focusing or they might have specific difficulties reading, writing, spelling or solving math problems.

There are several types of learning disabilities:

  • Dyslexia: This disability affects reading and language-processing skills. Someone with dyslexia may have difficulty with reading, writing, reading comprehension, spelling, or speech.
  • Dyscalculia: A disability that affects someone’s ability to understand math facts and numbers. A person with dyscalculia may have trouble understanding math symbols, counting, telling time, or memorizing or organizing numbers.
  • Dysgraphia: This affects a person’s handwriting and fine motor skills. Someone with this disability might have illegible handwriting, difficulty with spacing on paper, or poor spelling.
  • Language Processing Disorder: This disorder affects someone’s ability to understand meaning to words, sentences and stories.
  • Auditory Processing Disorder: Auditory Processing Disorder affects someone’s ability to process sounds. They may have difficulty processing sounds in words, and may not be able to make sense of sounds or understand where sounds are coming from.
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit: This disorder affects a person’s ability to process information that they see, or their ability to draw and copy. Someone with this disorder may have poor hand/eye coordination. They may also have trouble cutting, seeing subtle differences in shapes or printed letters, or they may lose place frequently.
  • Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: Someone with a Nonverbal Learning Disabilities has difficulty with motor skills, social skills and visual-spatial skills. For example, someone with this disorder may have trouble reading facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. They may also have trouble with coordination.

Although not classified as learning disabilities, people with Attention Deficit Disorder and executive functioning often have learning disabilities that can make learning very challenging. ADHD affects a person’s ability to focus and concentrate. Executive functioning affects a person’s ability to plan, organize, pay attention to and remember details, and strategize.

3 Important Facts

  • Nearly 4 million kids and teens have a learning disability.
  • People with learning disabilities can be of average, above-average or below average intelligence.
  • High school kids with learning disabilities have a higher dropout rate than their peers.

Signs to look for

  • Trouble with reading, writing, spelling, or math
  • Difficulty concentrating, paying attention to and remembering details
  • Trouble with organization
  • Social isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Socially or emotionally delayed
  • Acting out in immature ways

The symptoms of a learning disability vary, depending on the type of learning disability the person has. In general, trouble with reading, writing, spelling, or math may indicate a learning disability. Other signs may include difficulty concentrating, paying attention to and remembering details, or trouble with organization. People with learning disabilities may also have secondary effects, such as depression, social isolation, anger, low self-esteem, etc. They may also seem socially or emotionally delayed and may act out in immature ways, such as explosive rage.

Next steps

Dealing with a learning disability can be challenging, however people can learn to turn their learning disability into a learning ability. In fact, different ways of thinking about or solving problems can lead to creativity and innovation. Many highly successful people have used their learning disabilities to their advantage. For example, Walt Disney and Alexander Graham Bell both had learning disabilities, yet both were able to achieve extraordinary things.

With the right support, people with learning disabilities can learn to effectively manage their learning differences. Working with a special education teacher, school psychologist or therapist may be necessary to help teens and their parents implement strategies for coping with the learning disability.

If your child has a learning disability, keep the following three concepts in mind in order to help them navigate the emotions associated with learning differences:

  1. Reaffirm your love and care for the individual
  2. Validate their subjective experience with their particular learning challenge
  3. Work with them to explore and adopt new skills for navigating social situations and expressing emotions.

This will go a long way in helping them feel supported as they work through their learning difficulties.

Common Q and A

How are learning disabilities diagnosed?

Diagnosing a learning disability may involve completing an assessment involving specialized tests, observing the individual, examining schoolwork and grades, and a medical evaluation. Learning disabilities are usually diagnosed during childhood but they may be diagnosed in adolescent or adult years as well.

What causes learning disabilities?

We don’t know the exact causes of learning disabilities but we do know differences in brain structure are involved. People with learning disabilities are born with them and they are often inherited. In addition, factors that can increase risk of a fetus developing learning disabilities include drug and alcohol abuse, poor nutrition, or environmental toxins.

How are learning disabilities treated?

Learning disabilities are usually treated through special education services. Children and teens who qualify for special education should receive their own Individualized Education Program. This will list goals for the child, specialists who will work with them, and the specific services they will receive.

In addition, psychotherapy may be useful to help the person manage stress, anger, depression and other difficult emotions that often accompany the learning disability.