Learning Disabilities

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are disorders that affect a person’s ability to understand or respond to new information, or they are disorders that affect the ability to remember information that appears to have been taken in. Learning disabilities tend to cause problems with listening skills, language skills (including speaking, reading or writing), and mathematical operations. Learning disabilities can also cause problems in coordinating movements, making the child seem (and feel) awkward.

Learning disabilities are a brain operational difference and do not affect intelligence (IQ). In fact, they are the most severe, pervasive, and chronic form of learning difficulty in children with average or above-average intellectual abilities. Because most learning disabilities are diagnosed in childhood, this article will focus on the childhood effects of these conditions.

Although often present from birth (caused by unique features in brain structure that may be hereditary), most learning disabilities are discovered when the child is school age and begins to show significant gaps in learning when compared with peers. Learning disabilities are continual and can cause considerable lifelong challenges. In some cases, mildly affected adults learn to adapt their learning styles, making the learning disability less problematic.

Several of the most common types of learning disabilities include developmental reading disorder, disorder of written expression, mixed receptive-expressive language disorder, and mathematics operations disorder. Often these learning disabilities are accompanied by other disorders, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a disorder that can compound the child’s learning disability by making it difficult to listen, stay still, pay constant attention, or absorb new material. Consequently, this can lead to social problems for the child.

The most common treatment for a learning disability is special education or speech and language therapy; however, occasionally, medication can be tried to enhance attention and concentration. Because medication usually meets with mixed results, health care practitioners place an emphasis on therapy and special education.

While learning disabilities are not life threatening, they can create or be signs of a serious situation. Seek prompt medical care for a child if you believe he or she is a victim of neglect or caregiver negligence; if the child being treated for learning disabilities is exhibiting aggression, acting out, or other behavioral problems in response to embarrassment or frustration; if you feel that your child has behaviors that could cause injury to self or others; or if your child is being treated for learning disabilities, but you continue to have concerns about his or her needs.

What are the symptoms of learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are usually ongoing for a person’s lifetime. However, depending on the severity and the type of disability, many people are able to compensate for minor disabilities in adulthood and are able to function very well in society. For others, the learning disabilities remain apparent. The most common symptoms tend to be related to cognition or language skills and tend to cause problems with listening skills, language skills (including speaking, reading or writing), and mathematical operations.

Common symptoms of learning disabilities

Your child will most likely experience learning disabilities symptoms on a daily, ongoing basis. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:

  • Dyscalculia (problems with mathematical operations)

  • Dysgraphia (problems with handwriting)

  • Information-processing disorders (inability to fully use sensory information)

  • Language-related problems, or difficulty with age-appropriate verbal and written communications

  • Reading disability or dyslexia

  • Significant delay in achieving a developmental milestone, while other areas are normal or above average

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, learning disabilities can be a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if your child, or someone you are with, has any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Aggressive behaviors that lead you to believe the child is a danger to self or others

  • Signs that lead you to suspect the child is a victim of neglect or child abuse

What causes learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are a brain operational aberration. This means that the brain assimilates and processes certain kinds of new information and performs operations in unique, unusual ways that often make it difficult to achieve normal learning milestones.

In many cases, there may be a genetic predisposition to the development of learning disabilities. They can also be caused by changes in the brain from social or environmental deprivations, deafness, poor vision, birth trauma, or neurologic injury in utero. Learning disabilities are twice as common in children with chronic health conditions as in children without chronic health conditions. Children who receive special education services have greater rates of healthcare utilization than children who do not receive special education services. Some developmental problems can be corrected or improved by addressing intrinsic causes such as poor vision, deafness, and environmental factors.

What are the risk factors for learning disabilities?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing learning disabilities. Not all people with risk factors will get learning disabilities. Risk factors for learning disabilities include:

  • Alcohol or harmful drug exposure in utero

  • Birth trauma or distress

  • Exposure to neurologic or central nervous system injury in utero or after birth

  • Heredity

  • Lack of nurturing environment

  • Low birth weight

  • Medications such as cancer or leukemia treatments in children

  • Nutritional deficits

  • Premature birth

  • Sensory deficits, such as hearing loss or poor vision

Reducing your child’s risk of learning disabilities

While some learning disabilities cannot be prevented, you may be able to lower your child’s risk of learning disabilities by:

  • Avoiding all alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs before, during and after your pregnancy

  • Avoiding exposure to toxic substances during pregnancy and after your child’s birth

  • Carefully assessing risks versus benefits for your child’s medications with your health care practitioner

  • Eliminating stressful influences from your child’s home and social environment

  • Getting prompt help to correct any detected sensory deficits, especially hearing deficit or poor vision

  • Obtaining early childhood screenings for your child and discussing early childhood development milestones with your child’s health care provider

  • Protecting your child by limiting medications both during pregnancy and breastfeeding

  • Providing good nutrition and a healthy environment for your child

  • Seeking early intervention if your child is diagnosed with a learning disability or a potential disability

How are learning disabilities treated?

Learning disabilities are not curable; however, many can be reduced or controlled with early screening and intervention. In addition, disabilities caused by correctable factors, such as poor hearing or vision, may go away entirely over time once the causative condition is corrected. Once diagnosed with a learning disability, your child’s most beneficial treatment will be special education services, including a team approach to planning your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), in addition to other therapies, if these are found helpful. These might include speech therapy or occupational therapy. One-on-one tutoring with a specialist who understands learning disabilities can also make a difference in a child’s adaptation and progress.

What are the potential complications of learning disabilities?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled 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 health care professional design specifically for your child. Complications of learning disabilities include:

  • Acceleration of disabilities
  • Adult behavioral problems
  • Adult literacy problems
  • Adult social adjustment problems
  • Low self esteem or depression
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Learning disabilities. National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/learning/Pages/default.aspx.=
  2. Learning disorders. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/learningdisorders.html.
  3. Carey WB, Crocker AC, Coleman WL, et al (Eds). Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics (4th Ed). Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier 2009.