What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability means having one or more related problems that affect specific areas of learning and behavior. Some people may have many overlapping learning disabilities; others may have a single, isolated learning disability that has little impact on other aspects of their lives.

Learning disabilities may affect many areas of a person's life: school, work, family life and even friendships. A child with a learning disability may have difficulty with written or spoken language such as reading, writing, spelling and math; with skills such as speaking clearly, putting thoughts down on paper or remembering; and with such abilities as coordination, paying attention and sitting still.


  • Each child with a learning disability is different; all people learn and remember in different ways.
  • Learning disabilities are more common in boys than girls.
  • Learning disabilities are not the result of emotional disturbance. However, emotional problems can be the result of frustrations that arise from learning disabilities.
  • The earlier a learning disability is detected, the greater the chance for improvement.

Diagnosing a Learning Disability

A child suspected of having a learning disability will need:

  • Thorough physical, visual and hearing examinations
  • Diagnostic testing by specialists in psychometrics, educational testing and learning styles.

Indications of Learning Disabilities

  • Inability to perform well at school
  • Restlessness, constant activity
  • Sluggishness, lazy behavior
  • Inflexibility, inability to change from one activity to another
  • Short attention span
  • Poor printing, writing and spelling
  • Physical awkwardness
  • Extreme slowness in learning to talk, confused speech
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Expression of worry, anger or frustration at inability to deal with school problems and get along with other children; poor social skills
  • Poor organization and time management skills
  • Slow to start and complete tasks
  • Difficulty controlling behavior
  • Difficulty following oral or written instructions
  • Inability to remember what has been taught on a day-to-day basis

Causes of Learning Disabilities

Although the cause of learning disabilities remains unknown, the following are considered possible contributors:

  • Abnormalities in fetal brain development resulting from genetic factors or tobacco, alcohol and other drug use by pregnant mothers
  • Complications in pregnancy or delivery
  • Toxins in the child's environment
  • Lag in nervous system development
  • Learning disabilities can be divided into three broad categories: Developmental speech and language disorders Problems with speech and language are often among the first indicators of a learning disability.
  • Individuals who have difficulty pronouncing sounds, using spoken language to communicate, or understanding what others say may have developmental speech and language disorders. Diagnoses include developmental articulation disorder, expressive language disorder and receptive language disorder.

Academic skills disorders

Students with academic skills disorders are often years behind their classmates in developing reading, writing or arithmetic skills. These disorders are quite common; in fact, reading disabilities affect 2 to 8 percent of elementary school children. Diagnoses include developmental reading disorder (dyslexia), writing disorder and arithmetic disorder.


This category includes certain coordination disorders and motor skills disorders that involve delays in acquiring language, academic or motor skills that affect learning ability, but do not meet the criteria for a specific learning disability.

Attention Disorders

Some 20 percent of the nearly four million school-aged children with learning disabilities have a type of disorder that leaves them unable to focus their attention. Hyperactivity accompanies attention deficit disorders in a large portion of children, mostly boys. This may cause serious problems at school, and often accompanies academic skills disorders, but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, attention disorders are not considered learning disabilities.


Learning disabilities cannot be cured, but given the right kind of educational experiences, people have a remarkable ability to learn. Since the brain's flexibility to learn new skills is greatest in young children, early detection and intervention are key. With proper remediation and support from caring and informed parents and teachers, a lot can be done to help children with learning disabilities identify the best way for them to learn.

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