Learning disability


Adoptive Families Association of BC
AFABC Special Needs Database

A learning disability (LD) is a disorder that affects people's ability to either interpret what they see and hear, or to link information from different parts of the brain. These limitations can show up in many ways, as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self-control, or attention. LD can be a lifelong condition that, in some cases, affects many parts of a person's life: school or work, daily routines, family life, and sometimes even friendships and play.

In some people, many overlapping learning disabilities may be apparent. Other people may have a single, isolated learning problem that has little impact on other areas of their lives.

Learning disabilities can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Speech and language problems
  • Academic skills disorders
  • "Other" learning disabilities

Speech and language problems are often the earliest indicators of a learning disability. People with developmental speech and language disorders have difficulty producing speech sounds, using spoken language to communicate, or understanding what other people say.

Developmental articulation disorder
Children with this disorder may have trouble controlling their rate of speech. Or they may lag behind playmates in learning to make speech sounds. For instance, a child may say "wabbit" instead of "rabbit." Developmental articulation disorders are common.

Developmental expressive language disorder
Some children with language impairments have problems expressing themselves in speech. For example, a child may call objects by the wrong names or he/she may not be able to answer simple questions.

Developmental receptive language disorder
Some people have trouble understanding certain aspects of speech. It is as if their brains were set to a different frequency and the reception is poor. Their hearing is fine, but they cannot make sense of certain sounds, words, or sentences they hear. They may even seem inattentive. For instance, a child doesn't respond to his name.

Academic skills disorders
The child has difficulties with reading, writing, and arithmetic:

  • Developmental reading disorder = dyslexia
  • Developmental writing disorder = dysgraphia
  • Developmental arithmetic disorder = dyscalculia
  • "Other" learning disabilities include motor skills disorders and also coordination disorders = dyspraxia

Scientists believe that most learning disabilities do not stem from a single, specific area of the brain, but from difficulties in bringing together information from various brain regions. A leading theory is that learning disabilities stem from subtle disturbances in brain structures and functions. Some scientists believe that, in many cases, the disturbance begins before birth and can be called errors in fetal brain development.

Throughout pregnancy, the fetal brain develops from a few all-purpose cells into a complex organ made of billions of specialized, interconnected nerve cells called neurons. Throughout pregnancy, this brain development is vulnerable to disruptions. If the disruption occurs early, the fetus may die, or the infant may be born with widespread disabilities and possibly mental retardation. If the disruption occurs later, when the cells are becoming specialized and moving into place, it may leave errors in the cell makeup, location, or connections. Some scientists believe that these errors may later show up as learning disorders.

What determines disruptions in brain development?
Genetic factors:
The fact that learning disabilities tend to run in families indicates that there may be a genetic link. However, it seems unlikely that specific learning disorders are inherited directly. Possibly, what is inherited is a subtle brain dysfunction that can in turn lead to a learning disability. Or, some learning difficulties stem from the family environment. For example, parents who have expressive language disorders might talk less to their children, or the language they use may be distorted. In such cases, the child lacks a good model for acquiring language and therefore, may seem to be learning disabled.

Alcohol, tobacco and other drug use:
Many drugs taken by mother pass directly to the fetus.

Problems during pregnancy or delivering birth:
In some cases, the mother's immune system reacts to the fetus and attacks it as if it were an infection. This type of disruption seems to cause newly formed brain cells to settle in the wrong part of the brain. Or during delivery, the umbilical cord may become twisted and temporarily cut off oxygen to the fetus. This, too, can impair brain functions and lead to learning disabilities.

Toxins in the child's environment: Researches are looking into environmental toxins that may lead to learning disabilities possibly by disrupting childhood brain development or brain processes. For instance, cadmium, used in making some steel products, can get into the soil, then into the foods that we eat.

Dysgraphia: a learning disability that affects writing abilities. It can manifest itself as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting and trouble putting thoughts on paper. Since dysgraphia is a processing disorder, difficulties can change throughout a lifetime. However, since writing is a developmental process, children learn the motor skills needed to write, while learning the thinking skills needed to communicate on paper, difficulties can also overlap.

Dyspraxia: specific disorder in the area of motor skill development. People with dyspraxia have difficulty planning and completing intended fine motor tasks. Dyspraxia can affect areas of functioning, varying from simple motor tasks such as waving goodbye to more complex tasks like brushing teeth.

Babies with dyspraxia may:

  • Avoid crawling and rolling over
  • Resist tasks involving motor skills

Children with dyspraxia are prone to:

  • Difficulty with eye movements
  • Difficulty using utensils and holding a cup while drinking
  • Difficulty walking, hopping, skipping, throwing, catching a ball and riding a bike
  • Delay in using spoken language and speech that is difficult to understand
  • Bumping into objects
  • Difficulty doing fine-motor activities such as tying shoelaces or buttoning clothing

Dyslexia: difficulties with reading, writing, spelling and maybe even speaking. Dyslexia is a life-long language processing disorder that hinders the development of oral and written skills.

Dyscalculia: a life-long learning disabilities involving math. Children with dyscalculia have:

  • difficulty learning the meaning of number (number sense), trouble with task
  • trouble with tasks like sorting objects by shape, size, or colour
  • trouble comparing and contrasting using concepts like smaller/bigger or taller/shorter

A person with any learning disabilities, will benefit from help, from both specialists, and those who are closest to the person. Teachers, educators and parents should work together in order to establish strategies that will help the child learn writing, reading, and counting more effectively. Repeated reinforcement and specific practice can make understanding easier.

It is important also to speak to the child about his/her disability (dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalcula), and explain the challenges that he/she has to face. It is necessary to note that almost all people with learning disabilities can become good readers or writers or become good at math.

All these disabilities can make it difficult for children to develop social skills, and they may have trouble getting along with peers. Though they are intelligent, these children may seem immature and some may develop phobias and obsessive behavior. Other common difficulties include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Mental health problems
  • Emotional and behavioural difficulties
  • Difficulty with self-expression

Because developmental skills build on each other, a person may have more than one learning disability. Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities. So it's not surprising that people can be diagnosed as having more than one area of learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies learning to speak.

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.