What is a Learning Disability
When someone has a Learning Disability, it means that he or she learns differently than most people, and that learning itself is usually more difficult than it is for others. A Learning Disability is a condition that can affect anybody, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. It is diagnosed using four criteria. First, there must be a significant discrepancy between overall cognitive ability and achievement. Ability is determined by using comprehensive intelligence tests. Achievement means performance in academic areas, such as reading, spelling, or math.
The second criteria for a Learning Disability is a processing deficit. The brain must process all information that it receives from the senses (like hearing and vision). Sometimes, a person’s ability to process information is impaired in some way. For example, a person’s visual memory may be weak. This person has great difficulty remembering what he sees. Another person may have trouble processing the sounds she hears. She may have trouble discriminating between sounds that are similar, like ‘f’ and ‘s’.
Third, the processing deficit(s) must be shown to be directly contributing to underachievement. For example, it is not enough to say that a child has “visual-motor problems”. The visual-motor weaknesses must be negatively impacting academic performance, say in handwriting quality. Likewise, the person who has difficulty processing and discriminating between sounds may have trouble learning to read using a phonics approach.
The fourth criteria for diagnosing a Learning Disability is that the underachievement cannot be primarily due to factors other than a processing deficit, such as a head injury or epilepsy, physical disability, sensory impairment (vision and hearing), mental retardation, lack of appropriate instruction, or severe psychological disturbance. Of course, many learning disabled children have other problems in addition to their learning disability, such as low self-esteem and test-anxiety. However, these other concerns are not the primary cause of the underachievement, they are secondary to the learning disability.
How can I tell if my child has a learning disability?
Some children cannot seem to do well in school, despite good effort and apparently normal intelligence. Their teachers and parents may complain that they’re not trying hard enough. Other parents are told that their child will “outgrow” his or her problems. Sometimes, these children can perform very well in certain school subjects, but do poorly in others. Some children just work slowly, and need extra time to complete many tasks, although they do not seem to be mentally retarded. Often, parents are told by the school that their child’s grades are not bad enough to warrant testing or intervention. Nevertheless, the parents feel strongly that their child is not working up to potential.
Sometimes, parents may notice that their child has weak skills in very specific areas outside of school. For example, a youngster may have difficulty remembering what she hears. You may have to repeat directions numerous times, and may wonder if she is just not paying attention. Another child may have severe spatial orientation difficulties. He gets lost easily, and when he’s reading, he tends to skip letters, words, and even whole lines. His writing, letters and words are all bunched together in some places, and there are large gaps elsewhere. Other children have very poor handwriting, or are tediously slow in their method. Some children reverse letters and numbers, when their peers have long since outgrown this tendency.
Because there are so many types and variations of learning disabilities, it is often difficult for parents and teachers to identify the exact problem. Sometimes children are put into resource rooms at school, or given other extra help, but nobody really understands what is causing the difficulties. A school may even do some testing, and report that a child is below grade level in reading or other subjects, but there is still no explanation as to why.
What will the results of the testing tell me?
Regardless of whether or not a Learning Disability is diagnosed, you will get a large amount of valuable information. First, you will find out about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. You may already have a good idea about where the problem areas are, but it is also equally important to find out which areas are strong. This will be important for planning remediation strategies, as well as future coursework.
You will also find out why certain areas are strong or weak. For example, it is vital to find out why a particular child has difficulty reading. It may be due to poor phonics skills, poor ability to discriminate between letters, poor vision, slow reading speed, poor comprehension, inability to concentrate, or any of a number of other factors.
Once areas of relative strength and weakness are identified, as well as the processing and cognitive factors underlying those strengths and weaknesses, appropriate recommendations can be generated. You will get recommendations for your child, the parents, the school, and sometimes for other professionals (school social worker, pediatrician).
What about Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?
ADHD is probably grossly overdiagnosed and many children are likely needlessly medicated because some professional believed that a child who fidgeted in class must be ADHD. All too often, diagnoses are made by practitioners who are not qualified and have little real training and experience in working with ADHD children. Likewise, medication is often prescribed with little or no follow-up.
ADHD is a behavior disorder that means a child has difficulty attending, concentrating, and controlling impulses. Distractibility and hyperactivity may also be present. These problems must be significantly out of the “normal range” for the child’s age. That is, where it may be normal for a 4-year-old to become restless and fidgety after being read to for 10 minutes, it is inappropriate for a 15-year-old to be jumpy and squirming after 10 minutes of reading.
There is no one “test” for ADHD. However, an experienced clinician can see how a child behaves during various tasks, some of which demand concentration and focus, and some that do not. Likewise, there are good tests for distractibility, which also go with ADHD. And most importantly, an experienced clinician can observe a child in the classroom, and talk with his/her teachers and parents, to get a good sense of a child’s behavior.
ADHD is a serious disorder, which can have major consequences for learning and social skills. ADHD must be carefully diagnosed, by an experienced and qualified professional. The diagnosis should be based on data gathered from a number of different sources (tests, behavioral observations, teacher reports, parent reports). The disorder must be closely monitored, especially if medication is prescribed and teachers and parents must be given concrete strategies for helping the child.