Symptoms and Causes for Learning Disorders and Disabilities in Childrens

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What causes a learning disorder/disability?

No one really knows what causes a learning disability. Often, learning problems can run in families (genetic), but environmental factors can play a role too. Mostly, learning disabilities occur because there is an enormous range of variation that occurs normally in people’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. If we think about our physical development, nearly everyone has two eyes, a nose and a mouth, yet each of our faces has its own distinctive features. The same is true of brain development. Whereas most children’s cognitive profiles are adequate to the tasks we expect children to accomplish in school, there are many children for whom that is not true. Those children encounter difficulty meeting age and grade level expectations, and the problem can become identified as a “learning disability.”

Who is affected by a learning disorder/disability?

Learning disabilities can occur in any child. They are most often detected by third grade or so, but for some children they may become apparent quite early, before formal schooling, whereas for others they may not become apparent until middle school. Children with a family history of learning problems are more likely to have learning problems, and some people think that boys are more likely to develop learning problems. Children with other neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, are more likely to have learning problems; and children with serious medical conditions may develop learning problems as a result of the condition or its treatment.

What are the symptoms of a learning disorder/disability?

Children with learning disabilities struggle with school work more than their peers. This can take many forms. They may struggle to read, be confused by math, or have trouble with formulating their thoughts and communicating them. Overall, they need to work harder than peers for their accomplishments in school. Parents often say that homework is a “battle” or they find themselves working with the child every night to try to keep up. The child may appear inattentive, especially in school, because they cannot process information like other students. Most parents say that they sense that something is “wrong” and teachers often will confirm or bring to the parent’s attention.

How common is a learning disability?

It is hard to know how many children have a learning disability since the diagnostic criteria are so variable from place to place. About 10% of students in the United States have been classified at some time in their lives as having a learning disability.

How can I tell if my child has a learning disability or if the problem is just typical ups and downs?

A child with a learning disability will have struggles that don’t get better with standard teaching or extra help. The DSM-5 (the manual that psychiatrists use to diagnose disorders) has four criteria for a diagnosis of “specific learning disorder”: (1) symptoms persist for at least 6 months despite extra help or targeted instruction; (2) affected skills are below age expectations and cause impairment in academic, occupational or everyday activities, as confirmed by testing and comprehensive clinical assessment; (3) problem starts during the school-age years; and (4) problem not due to other conditions (such as Intellectual Disability, vision or hearing impairment).

What is the long-term outlook for children with learning disabilities?

The outlook depends on many factors. In most cases, if the child receives good educational and family support and can be directed to occupations and pursuits that call upon their strengths, they do very well as adults. Long-term outcomes do not depend only on academic achievement, but also on personal qualities, supportive adults and community factors.

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- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

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