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What is a Learning Disability?

What is a Learning Disability?

By Dr. Kenneth Shore

The most frequent problem for which children receive special education is a learning disability. More common with boys, learning disabilities are found in approximately 10 percent of children nationwide. A learning disability is characterized by specific difficulties in acquiring information, usually causing deficiencies in academic skills. Additionally, a learning disability is not due to cognitive impairment, an emotional problem, a physical disability, lack of motivation, or environmental disadvantages. Distinguishing a learning disability from these problems can be tricky so that misdiagnosis is not uncommon.

Finding out that your child has a learning disability (which goes by various names such as dyslexia, minimal brain dysfunction, specific language difficulty, and perceptual impairment) tells you little more than he is having difficulty learning at the same pace or in the same way as most other children. You need more detailed information to fully understand the problem. That is because learning disabilities come in many shapes and sizes.

Some learning disabled children have difficulty learning to read, which may be restricted to a problem in decoding or comprehension. Others may be skilled readers but have problems with written or oral language. They may have difficulty putting their thoughts on paper so that what they write rarely reflects what they know. Or they may have problems processing what they hear even though their hearing is intact. Others cannot listen and write at the same time. And still others may have an attention deficit: they have great difficulty concentrating in class and staying on task. Most learning disabled children do not have just one specific problem but rather a combination of problems.

While learning disabled children rarely have the same profile of strengths and weaknesses, they do share two characteristics in common: they are not lazy and they are not slow. They are often puzzles to their teachers and parents—and almost always themselves—because they typically do some things well and others poorly. Many grow frustrated and discouraged by their failure to keep pace with their classmates and may respond in class by misbehaving, withdrawing, or even becoming the class clown.

Children with learning disabilities sometimes outgrow the problem. Recent research indicates that children diagnosed with a reading disability in first grade often are not reading disabled when tested again as third or sixth graders. Other learning disabled children, however, do continue to have problems throughout school and perhaps into adulthood. For these children, the hope is that through specialized teaching techniques and a positive, supportive approach, they will learn to develop some coping mechanisms and adjust to the disability. As a rule, the earlier learning problems are identified, the better the adjustment.

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