Learning disabilities are generally defined as developmental problems that interfere with a child’s ability to process information. In the broadest sense, this definition covers mental retardation and such neurological disorders as hyperactivity, but this discussion focuses on difficulties that disappear in time or are highly treatable. Although there may be some overlap, most learning disabilities fall into three categories: Disorders affecting academic skills, most commonly reading or math. Included are such perceptual problems as dyslexia, which causes difficulty in learning to read; excluded are blindness and other sensory impairments.
Disorders affecting language and speech. The milder forms, which include lisping and stuttering, are probably the most common of all learning disabilities, as well as the most benign. More serious, but less common, examples include an inability to form sentences or difficulty in understanding certain sounds or words. Disorders affecting coordination or other motor skills in the absence of neurological, muscular, or other physical problems. These include difficulty learning to write, tie shoelaces, work puzzles, and perform other tasks that require fine coordination.
Some learning disabilities, such as poor coordination and language problems, are obvious at an early age. The child may be slow in starting to walk or have unusual trouble in learning to talk. Those disabilities affecting academic skills usually do not show up until the child starts school. At one time, these learning disabilities were attributed to low intelligence. Experts now know that many children with these problems are highly intelligent but may have a subtle brain or nerve abnormality that interferes with information processing. Heredity is believed to be a major factor, especially in dyslexia. One study found that 60 percent of dyslexic children had parents or siblings with the same problem. Other factors that are sometimes associated with learning disorders include low birth weight, nutritional deficiencies, and drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy. Parental neglect or sensory deprivation during infancy can also contribute to later learning problems. Some researchers theorize that certain difficulties stem from over or under development of one side, or hemisphere, of the brain.
Diagnostic Studies And Procedures
Evaluation of a child with a suspected learning disability begins with ruling out physical and neurological disorders, including mental retardation. This is best done by a child psychologist, developmental pediatrician, or other qualified health professional. In addition to a physical and neurological examination, studies are likely to include vision and hearing tests and perhaps a CT brain scan and electroencephalogram, a study of the brain’s electrical patterns. Working with blocks and other playthings can help children with poor motor skills improve eye hand coordination. To find out whether the child is performing below potential, an IQ test will be administered. A standard IQ test evaluates a child’s memory, language skills, and ability to organize information. Specific learning disabilities may also be diagnosed by a speech pathologist and an occupational therapist.
In general, children with learning disabilities do not require any special medical treatment unless an underlying disorder, such as anemia or nutritional deficiency, is a factor.
A number of alternative therapies can often reach children with learning disabilities and provide ways of overcoming them. Multisensory approaches are especially helpful; for example, a child of normal or higher than average intelligence who has trouble reading or writing is encouraged to learn by seeing, hearing, and moving. Techniques that may be employed include:
How a child uses art materials is often a clue to specific learning and perception difficulties. Art may also be the medium in which a youngster reveals special talents that may hold a key to overcoming some learning disabilities.
Especially clumsy youngsters can improve their coordination by dancing and engaging in other types of movement therapy. Older children may benefit from tai chi, judo, or another martial art.
Group singing, playing a musical instrument, listening to tapes, and identifying musical compositions to foster musical memory are more than socially enriching activities; they also provide an alternative means of expression and learning. Children who stutter or lisp can often learn to form words normally by singing. By memorizing a song, a child may grasp how to form a sentence. Music can also be used to teach math and other skills.
Animals have become an integral part of many programs for the learning disabled. Mimicking their sounds may help children with speech problems. Learning to ride a horse is a valuable means of improving coordination. Pets can also foster a sense of responsibility and improved self esteem both important advantages for the learning disabled.
It is increasingly clear that many, if not most, learning disabilities can be overcome through special teaching techniques. Dyslexics, for example, can usually be taught to read by teachers using special methods. Federal legislation requires that all public school systems evaluate children at risk for learning disabilities and provide special education programs for those who need them.
There are several new methods for overcoming speech problems. Ask your pediatrician or teacher for a referral to a qualified therapist.
Patience, understanding, and realistic expectations should form the basis of parental help for a child with learning disabilities. Specialists agree on the following guidelines for parents:
Encourage academic accomplishment, but don’t push. Meet regularly with the child’s teachers and supervisors, and participate in developing an individualized plan that builds on the child’s strengths and devotes more time to reducing weaknesses.
Be helpful with homework, but resist doing it for the child. Instead, allow the child time to produce the right answers by asking a series of leading questions.
Provide a good role model by letting the child know how much pleasure you get from reading. Read to a young child at bedtime, and encourage older children to read books that are of special interest to them. To help the child get accustomed to using the local library, go there together on a regular basis.
Be sensitive to the child’s feelings. If a youngster gets frustrated and angry, let him know that adults share the same feelings and have appropriate means of dealing with them.
Set time aside for sharing a hobby, special outings, or other enjoyable pure suits that foster the child’s self esteem.
Above all, accentuate the positive and praise strong points. Help your son or daughter take pride in any accomplishments, even if ordinary.
Other Causes of Learning Problems
Numerous neurological and physical conditions can cause or contribute to learning disabilities. These include autism, brain tumors, cerebral palsy, depression, fetal alcohol syndrome, head injuries, hearing loss, lead exposure, hydrocephalus, hyperactivity, mental retardation, schizophrenia, and severe uncontrolled epilepsy.