Learning Disabilities: Early Diagnosis Is Key

If your child has a learning disorder, basic tasks like reading, concentrating, and organizing information may be challenging. Learning disorders—by some estimates—affect about 1 in 7 Americans and impact how a person understands, remembers, and responds to new information. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, learning disorders are caused by difficulties with the nervous system that affect the learning process. Another hallmark of the problem is differences in brain structures, which tend to be present at birth and are often inherited.

Although learning disorders occur in very young children, parents, teachers, and physicians do not always recognize something is amiss until the child starts school. In fact, the Learning Disabilities Association of America calls learning disabilities the "invisible disability."

It's important to realize that a child with a learning disability isn't lazy or dumb. Quite often they are just as intelligent as their peers, but because their brains are wired differently, they need to be taught in ways that work with their unique learning styles. Although disabilities can't be cured, if identified early parents, teachers, and specialists can work together and develop strategies for dealing with them.

Types of Learning Disorders

Learning disorders fall into four broad categories:

1. Speech and language issues, most often dyslexia (80 percent of people with learning disabilities have trouble with reading).

2. Nonverbal learning disorders, which are deficiencies in visual-spatial perception, vision, memory, reasoning, concept formation, and math skills.

3. Attention disorders (about one third of children with learning disorders also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD).

4. Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), which is on the autism spectrum and is characterized by delays in the development of social and communication skills.

When not diagnosed early, however, unaddressed learning disorders can snowball frustrating children and causing them to develop emotional problems such as low self-esteem. As a result, learning disabilities are sometimes overlooked and viewed as discipline problems. The good news is early intervention can have impressive results and increases the likelihood that a child will be successful in school and beyond. So take heart.

Thanks in part to a concept called neuroplasticity, children can be taught strategies to make their disabilities less of a problem. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form new connections and generate new brain cells in response to experiences and learning.

Once qualified children reach school age, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) requires that public schools provide free special education, but the process can be challenging and time consuming so bring extra patience and persistence with you. Although schools are mandated to test children, budget constraints can be prohibitive.

Ideally, you'll want a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation including an IQ test and other measures of academic strengths and weaknesses. Professionals with expertise in learning disorders can help coordinate evaluations, recommend appropriate school placement, and identify needs for special help. Trained professionals—who are not employed by the school district—can also assess learning disabilities but their services can be costly ($500 and up). Ask your pediatrician or other parents of children with learning disabilities for references.

Treatment depends on the nature and extent of the learning disorder. Trained professionals, such as childhood and adolescent psychiatrists, help children build on their strengths and develop ways to compensate for weaknesses. Mental health experts can also teach them emotional coping tools and treat ADHD with medication, if needed.

It can take time to find the right professional, so don't give up. Learn as much as you can about your child's particular learning disorder. You can also research new treatment, services, and theories; nurture your child's strengths; and continue treatments at home.

David Levine, MD, reviewed this article.



Help Guide. "Learning Disabilities and Disorders."  February 2013. Kemp, Gina, MA; Smith, Melinda, MA; and Segal, Jeanne, PhD http://www.helpguide.org/mental/learning_disabilities.htm

Medline Plus. "Learning Disorders." 15 May 2013

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Children With Learning Disabilities Facts for Families No. 16." December 2011.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "What Are the Treatments for Learning Disabilities?" 30 November 2012. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/learning/conditioninfo/pages/treatment.aspx

Learning Disabilities Association of America. "Help With Your Child" 21 May 2013.