Learning disabilities (LD) is a general term used to describe a variety of learning disorders. Parents may suspect that their child has a LD if he struggles with reading and writing, avoids school, and has difficulty communicating. According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, as many as 1 out of every 5 people in the United States have a learning disability, and almost 1 million children receive special education in school because of it.
Signs of a Learning Disability
Many children with learning disabilities are extremely smart. In fact, they can use their strengths to hide certain difficulties, like using a phenomenal auditory memory to avoid reading or taking notes. But signs of an LD usually appear before children are expected to read and write. There are also many different types of LDs, and it’s possible for a child to have more than one. If you notice your 3- to 5-year-old having difficulty rhyming words, singing the alphabet song, or mispronouncing words more than other children their age do, these could be signs of a learning disability. Here are a few more red flags that indicate your school-aged child may have an LD:
- Mispronouncing words (e.g., “ospital” or “pithostel” instead of “hospital”)
- Word substitutions (e.g., “The man grew a fuzzy, long ‘board.’”)
- Poor spelling
- Difficulty copying shapes, letters, and words
- Letter and word reversals (e.g., using a “b” instead of “d”, writing “was” instead of “saw”) after 7 years of age.
Although these signs may indicate your child has an LD, be sure to first rule out visual impairment, which may cause reading difficulties. Have your child evaluated by a developmental optometrist to make sure glasses aren’t the solution, and always seek a professional for more opinions or an evaluation.
Types of Learning Disabilities
Many children may have both an LD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but although these disorders share similar features, ADHD is not a type of learning disability. Here are the six main types of LDs.
Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is a language-based disorder, not a visual problem that causes children to reverse letters. “There is a direct relationship between spoken language and a student’s ability to read and spell,” says Lois Brady, a speech and language pathologist and author of Apps for Autism. “Individuals with dyslexia may have challenges with reading, spelling, and writing in conjunction with challenges in both understanding and expressing language. Such challenges may be severe or subtle and difficult to recognize,” Brady adds. According to Sally Shaywitz, M.D., the codirector of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and author ofOvercoming Dyslexia, reading disabilities are estimated to make up at least 80 percent of all LDs, and boys are more frequently identified as having dyslexia. The reason may be that girls tend to sit more quietly in their seats while boys often have behavior problems that draw attention to their learning disabilities.
Dyscalculia refers to difficulty with mathematics, such as computing, remembering math facts, and learning time and money concepts. The signs of dyscalculia change over time. Very young children may struggle with learning to count; school-aged children may reverse numbers and misalign columns. This type of LD affects functional skills such as playing board games, counting money, or measuring things.
“Dysgraphia refers to difficulty with the task of writing,” says Beverly H. Moskowitz, D.O.T., CEO and president of Real OT Solutions, Inc. Handwriting is a complex process that involves processing information and putting thoughts on paper by coordinating vision and pencil movements to form letters and words. “Children with dysgraphia struggle to organize letters, words, and numbers on a page. As a result, a written page may be seen as illegible handwriting, a mixture of letter cases, and/or a disorganized jumble of thoughts, syntax, grammar, and cohesiveness,” Dr. Moskowitz says. Children with this type of LD may also have difficulties with other fine motor skills and spelling.
Dyspraxia refers to difficulty with fine motor skills, such as controlling a pencil, grasping scissors, and hand-eye coordination. Parents may observe early signs of dyspraxia in a baby who does not imitate waving and pointing. Dyspraxia also affects gross motor skills such as the coordination to ride a bike or play sports.
Auditory Processing Disorder
Children with auditory processing disorders have difficulty with interpreting auditory information related to language development and reading. Parents and teachers might observe difficulties with discriminating similar sounds and words, following directions, and distinguishing important sounds (such as the teacher’s voice) from background sounds (such as paper crinkling).
Sensory Processing Disorder
Learning disabilities affect the brain’s ability to take in information, process it, and use it in a functional manner such as reading, writing, or following directions. Because of differences in brain wiring, “children with learning disabilities often have sensory processing issues that compound their difficulties,” says Lindsey Biel, an occupational therapist and co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child. “Uncomfortable experiences such as hypersensitivity to noise, the glare of overhead classroom lighting, ‘scratchy’ clothing textures, and even the smell of classmates or school supplies can make focusing and concentrating quite difficult,” Biel says.
Visual Processing Disorder
Visual processing disorders involve difficulties interpreting visual information related to reading, writing, and math. Children with this type of LD might have a problem discerning visual similarities and differences (for example, in words or patterns). They may struggle to find items on the table or words on a page because they have poor visual figure-ground discrimination. Other signs of a visual processing disorder include difficulties sequencing symbols, words or images, and spelling.
Diagnosing a Learning Disability
Teachers typically offer a referral for educational testing to understand why a student is not working up to his potential. Usually the discrepancy between a student’s expected achievement (such as reading at grade level) and actual academic performance is a hallmark of a learning disability. Specific evaluations can diagnose specific learning disabilities. Parents may also choose a private evaluation by a neuropsychologist, a professional who is qualified to provide a diagnosis.
A speech and language pathology (SLP) evaluation can diagnose dyslexia or, along with an audiologist, diagnose an auditory processing disorder, and an occupational therapy evaluation may indicate dyspraxia, dysgraphia, or a visual processing disorder. Although developmental or learning challenges may be observed in younger children, learning disabilities are typically identified in school-aged children when academic demands increase and skills are closely monitored.
Getting Interventions for Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities vary in terms of severity, with sensory systems (e.g., visual, motor or auditory) and functions (e.g., difficulty speaking, reading, or writing) being affected. Parents who observe that their child is struggling to learn should ask their school to provide comprehensive testing by a team composed of a psychologist, occupational and physical therapists, a speech language pathologist, and an educational specialist. They can also have their child privately evaluated, typically by a neuropsychologist, for a second opinion.
A team approach to interventions may best address the child’s complex learning needs. Speech and language pathologists can provide classroom strategies and direct treatments to improve articulation, reading comprehension, and the ability to distinguish sounds. “Occupational therapy services can help normalize the child’s sensory experiences by increasing his or her underlying capacity to process sensory input and by making minor ‘sensory smart’ modifications to tasks and environments,” Biel says.
According to Dr. Moskowitz, “to compensate for this unique visual perceptual or language-processing problem, school-based occupational therapists may collaborate with the classroom teacher to develop three approaches to help kids: accommodations (exploring keyboard alternatives to handwriting), modifications (allowing oral instead of written reports), and remediation (skill training with visual cueing or self-monitoring.)” It’s important that early identification and interventions help children reach their potential.