An Overview of Learning Disabilities

Medically Reviewed By Dannell Roberts, PhD, BCBA-D

Learning disabilities are conditions that can affect an individual’s ability to acquire, understand, and remember new information. Examples of common learning disabilities include dyslexia, dyscalculia, and nonverbal learning disorders. Learning disabilities can impair listening skills, language skills, and the ability to perform mathematical operations. These conditions can also cause problems in coordinating movements.

Because most learning disabilities are diagnosed in childhood, this article will focus on the childhood effects of these conditions.

Read on to learn more about learning disabilities, including some common types and their causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Types

A mother playing piano with her son on her lap
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There are many types of learning disabilities. Some common examples include:

  • Dyslexia: This condition affects the ability to read, write, and spell.
  • Dyscalculia: This condition impairs the ability to perform mathematical calculations.
  • Dysgraphia: This condition causes writing difficulties, resulting in incorrect or distorted writing.
  • Central auditory processing disorder: This condition affects a person’s ability to process or understand sounds.
  • Nonverbal learning disorders: This refers to difficulties with tasks or skills that aren’t language-based, such as:
    • motor skills
    • social skills, including understanding body language or facial expressions
    • visual-spatial tasks, or telling where an object is in space or how far away from you something is

Causes and risk factors

Learning disabilities are the result of differences in the brain and the way it processes information. While the exact cause is still unclear, it is believed Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source that hereditary and environmental factors may play a role.

Some learning disabilities, such as dyslexia Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , may occur among others in the same family. Others, like dysgraphia Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , may be caused by a head injury or an underlying metabolic disorder.

Risk factors

Certain factors can increase a child’s risk of developing a learning disability. These include:

  • exposure to harmful substances in utero, such as illegal drugs
  • birth injury or distress
  • neurologic or central nervous system injury in utero or after birth
  • low birth weight
  • certain medications
  • nutritional deficits
  • premature birth

Signs and symptoms

A child will most likely experience learning disabilities signs or symptoms on an ongoing basis, particularly in school Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source . Depending on the type of learning disability, they may experience:

  • problems with mathematical operations
  • problems with handwriting
  • an inability to use or comprehend sensory information
  • difficulty with written and verbal communications
  • reading difficulties
  • delay in achieving a developmental milestone
  • coordination issues

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source , learning disabilities can be frustrating for children and may cause them to withdraw or act out.

Learn more about signs your child may need behavioral therapy.

Learning disabilities are usually ongoing for a person’s lifetime. However, depending on the severity and the type of disability, many people can compensate for minor disabilities in adulthood and function very well.

It’s important to note that learning disabilities are a brain operational difference and do not affect intelligence.

Diagnosis

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), learning disabilities are often discovered when a child begins going to school. Your doctor may begin by asking about your child’s symptoms, assessing their medical and family history, and performing a physical examination.

If other underlying conditions can be ruled out Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , your doctor will follow a set of guidelines laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to confirm a diagnosis. These guidelines help assess your child’s ability to perform certain tasks, including:

  • reading
  • writing
  • spelling
  • comprehending information
  • performing mathematical calculations

Neuropsychological testing, which helps evaluate how well your child’s brain is working, can also be helpful in confirming the type of learning disability.

Treatments

The most common treatment for children with learning disabilities is special education. After an evaluation by a trained professional, your care team can design a treatment plan based around:

  • helping your child learn in a way that uses their strengths and abilities
  • finding ways to compensate for areas where your child may have difficulties
  • making changes to your child’s learning environment to make learning easier
  • using technologies to help your child learn

One-on-one tutoring with a specialist who understands learning disabilities can also make a difference in a child’s adaptation and progress.

Your child’s care team could also be Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source composed of other healthcare professionals, such as:

  • speech therapists to help with language difficulties
  • occupational or physical therapists to manage motor skill difficulties
  • psychologists or therapists who can help your child cope with social challenges

Though learning disabilities are not curable, many can be managed with early diagnosis and intervention.

Potential complications

Possible complications of learning disabilities may include:

  • acceleration of disabilities
  • adult behavioral problems
  • adult literacy problems
  • adult social adjustment problems
  • low self-esteem or depression

The complications of untreated or poorly managed learning disabilities can be serious. You can help minimize your child’s risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your child’s care team design specifically for your child.

Frequently asked questions

Dannell Roberts, Ph.D., BCBA-D, reviewed the answers to these common questions about learning disabilities.

Is ADHD considered a learning disability?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not considered a learning disorder. However, some children may have ADHD in addition to a learning disability, which could make it more difficult for them to learn.

Learn more about 8 conditions linked to pediatric ADHD.

Is a learning disability a mental illness?

No, learning disabilities are not mental health conditions. However, learning disabilities can contribute to mental health symptoms like frustration, anxiety, or depression.

Is autism a learning disability?

Autism is not a learning disability but it may occur alongside certain learning disabilities. For example, nonverbal learning disabilities often clinically overlap Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source with autism spectrum disorder.

Summary

Learning disabilities can affect certain skills, such as reading, writing, or performing mathematical calculations. They may be inherited or result from environmental factors like a brain injury or exposure to harmful substances in utero.

Special education programs can help children with learning disabilities learn in a way that plays to their strengths and makes up for areas where they may have difficulties. Other interventions, such as physical or mental health therapy, may also be beneficial.

Talk with your child’s doctor about ways to manage learning disabilities.

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Medical Reviewer: Dannell Roberts, PhD, BCBA-D
Last Review Date: 2023 Jun 22
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