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Children learn at different paces, and there is a wide range of normal learning behavior. But neurologically based learning problems are considered learning disorders (or learning disabilities). These disorders make it hard to understand and retain information. They can affect academic and social development.
Learning disorders affect about 2.7 million children in U.S. public schools (The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center).
Learning disorders vary in terms of severity. They are not related to a person’s intelligence.
Learning disorders are often classified according to the affected area of learning. These are the most common types:
A learning disorder’s cause cannot always be identified. Structural differences in the brain may cause some of them. These differences affect how the brain processes information. The exact cause of these differences is not known, but they are present at birth and in some cases seem to be inherited (NICHD).
Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy can affect a fetus and lead to learning disorders. Poor nutrition in early childhood may cause learning disorders. Being exposed to certain chemicals or substances, such as lead, may cause learning disorders. Cancer treatment (for instance, for leukemia) may also increase risk.
A traumatic brain injury may lead to a learning disorder.
The most common risk factor is a family history of learning disorders (Cleveland Clinic). Additional risk factors include poor nutrition and maternal drug or alcohol use.
Learning disorders have many possible symptoms. Typical symptoms in a school-age child include difficulty following directions, reversing numbers or letters in writing, and poor social skills. Trouble reading, understanding speech, or speaking at an age-appropriate level is also a sign.
Having an average or above-average IQ but nonetheless having problems with schoolwork may be a sign of a learning disorder.
Problems are frequently noticed in early childhood.
An evaluation for a learning disorder often includes a medical exam to rule out problems such as hearing, vision, or developmental disabilities. It will include a discussion of family history. A psychological assessment and academic testing are also part of an accurate diagnosis. A specialist may also give the child an IQ test.
Treatment for learning disorders involves education. U.S. law ensures that schools offer specialized instruction to children with learning disorders. For example, students may videotape lectures instead of taking notes. They may learn special memorization techniques. Or they may get more time to complete work.
Learning disorders are not treated with medication. If additional issues exist, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), medication may be recommended. Therapy may include counseling for related issues, such as low self-esteem.
People do not outgrow learning disorders. But specialized learning techniques and strategies can help a child overcome obstacles and frustration with schoolwork. Early intervention is best, so educational plans can be put in place. With these tools, children can overcome learning disorders and have successful academic and social lives.
The cause of learning disorders is often unknown, so prevention is not always possible. Avoiding drugs and alcohol during pregnancy may reduce the risk of learning disorders in children.
Written by: MaryAnn DePietro
Medically reviewed on: Oct 22, 2013: George Krucik, MD, MBA
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