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Learning Disability

Types of learning disabilities, Treatment

A disorder that causes problems in speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability.

A learning disability, or specific developmental disorder, is a disorder that inhibits or interferes with the skills of learning, including speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability. Legally, a learning disabled child is one whose level of academic achievement is two or more years below the standard for his age and IQ level. It is estimated that 5-20% of school-age children in the United States, mostly boys, suffer from learning disabilities (currently, most sources place this figure at 20%). Often, learning disabilities appear together with other disorders, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are thought to be caused by irregularities in the functioning of certain parts of the brain. Evidence suggests that these irregularities are often inherited (a person is more likely to develop a learning disability if other family members have them). However, learning disabilities are also associated with certain conditions occurring during fetal development or birth, including maternal use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, exposure to infection, injury during birth, low birth weight, and sensory deprivation.

Aside from underachievement, other warning signs that a person may have a learning disability include overall lack of organization, forgetfulness, and taking unusually long amounts of time to complete assignments. In the classroom, the child's teacher may observe one or more of the following characteristics: difficulty paying attention, unusual sloppiness and disorganization, social withdrawal, difficulty working independently, and trouble switching from one activity to another. In addition to the preceding signs, which relate directly to school and schoolwork, certain general behavioral and emotional features often accompany learning disabilities. These include impulsiveness, restlessness, distractibility, poor physical coordination, low tolerance for frustration, low self-esteem, daydreaming, inattentiveness, and anger or sadness.

Types of learning disabilities

Learning disabilities are associated with brain dysfunctions that affect a number of basic skills. Perhaps the most fundamental is sensory-perceptual ability—the capacity to take in and process information through the senses. Difficulties involving vision, hearing, and touch will have an adverse effect on learning. Although learning is usually considered a mental rather than a physical pursuit, it involves motor skills, and it can also be impaired by problems with motor development. Other basic skills fundamental to learning include memory, attention, and language abilities.

The three most common academic skill areas affected by learning disabilities are reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some sources estimate that between 60-80% of children diagnosed with learning disabilities have reading as their only or main problem area. Learning disabilities involving reading have traditionally been known as dyslexia; currently the preferred term is developmental reading disorder. A wide array of problems is associated with reading disorders, including difficulty identifying groups of letters, problems relating letters to sounds, reversals and other errors involving letter position, chaotic spelling, trouble with syllabication, failure to recognize words, hesitant oral reading, and word-by-word rather than contextual reading. Writing disabilities, known as dysgraphia, include problems with letter formation and writing layout on the page, repetitions and omissions, punctuation and capitalization errors, "mirror writing," and a variety of spelling problems. Children with dysgraphia typically labor at written work much longer than their classmates, only to produce large, uneven writing that would be appropriate for a much younger child. Learning abilities involving math skills, generally referred to as dyscalcula (or dyscalculia), usually become apparent later than reading and writing problems—often at about the age of eight. Children with dyscalcula may have trouble counting, reading and writing numbers, understanding basic math concepts, mastering calculations, and measuring. This type of disability may also involve problems with nonverbal learning, including spatial organization.


The principal forms of treatment for learning disabilities are remedial education and psychotherapy. Either may be provided alone, the two may be provided simultaneously, or one may follow the other. Schools are required by law to provide specialized instruction for

This eight-year old boy with a learning disability that causes him to write some of these numbers backwards. (Ellen B. Senisi. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

children with learning disabilities. Remediation may take place privately with a tutor or in a school resource center. A remediator works with the child individually, often devising strategies to circumvent the barriers caused by the disability. A child with dyscalcula, for example, may be shown a "shortcut" or "trick" that involves memorizing a spatial pattern or design and then superimposing it on calculations of a specific type, such as double-digit multiplication problems. The most important aspect of remediation is finding new ways to solve old problems. In this respect, remediation diverges from ordinary tutoring methods that use drill and repetition, which are ineffective in dealing with learning disabilities. The earlier remediation is begun, the more effective it will be. At the same time that they are receiving remedial help, children with learning disabilities spend as much time as possible in the regular classroom.

While remediation addresses the obstacles created by the learning disability itself, psychotherapy deals with the emotional and behavioral problems associated with the condition. The difficulties caused by learning disabilities are bound to affect a child's emotional state and behavior. The inability to succeed at tasks that pose no unusual problems for one's peers creates a variety of unpleasant feelings, including shame, doubt, embarrassment, frustration, anger, confusion, fear, and sadness. These feelings pose several dangers if they are allowed to persist over time. First, they may aggravate the disability: excessive stress can interfere with the performance of many tasks, especially those that are difficult to begin with. In addition, other, previously developed abilities may suffer as well, further eroding the child's self-confidence. Finally, destructive emotional and behavioral patterns that begin in response to a learning disability may become entrenched and extend to other areas of a child's life. Both psychoanalytic and behaviorally oriented methods are used in therapy for children with learning disabilities.

The sensitivity developed over the past two decades to the needs of students with learning disabilities has extended to adults as well in some sectors. Some learning disabled adults have been accommodated by special measures such as extra time on projects at work. They may also be assigned tasks that does not require a lot of written communication. For example, a learning disabled person might take customer service phone calls, rather than reading and processing customer comment cards.

Because there is no "cure" for learning disability, it will continue to affect the lives of learning-disabled people, and the strategies they may have learned to succeed in school must also be applied in their vocation.

Further Reading

Tuttle, Cheryl Gerson, and Gerald A. Tuttle, eds. Challenging Voices: Writings By, For, and About People with Learning Disabilities. Los Angeles: Lowell House, 1995.

Wong, Y.L., ed. Learning About Learning Disabilities. San Diego: Academic Press, 1991.

Further Information

Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities. 4900 Girard Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15227–1444, (412) 881–2253.

National Center for Learning Disabilities. 99 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016, (212) 687–7211.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory