Learning disorders

A learning disorder is defined as difficulty in an academic area (reading, mathematics or written expression). The child's ability to achieve in the specific academic area is below what is expected for the child's age, educational level and level of intelligence. The difficulty experienced by the child is severe enough to interfere with academic achievement or age-appropriate normal activities of daily living. Learning disorders are sometimes called learning disabilities or specific learning disabilities. Most children with learning disorders have normal intelligence. Types of learning disorders include the following:

  • Reading disorders (including dyslexia)
  • Mathematics disorder
  • Disorder of written expression

What causes learning disorders?

The difference in the nervous system causes the child with a learning disorder to receive, process, or communicate information in a different way.

Genetic predisposition, problems during pregnancy, birth, or early infancy, as well as other general medical conditions may be associated with the cause of learning disorders.

Who is affected by learning disorders?

Ten to 30 percent of children have learning disorders. Mathematics disorder is estimated to affect 1 percent of school-aged children. Reading disorders are more common in children of parents who experienced a learning disorder. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a reading disorder than girls.

What are the types of learning disorders?

The following are the most common types of learning disorders: 

  • Reading disorder - A reading disorder is present when a child reads below the expected level given their age, grade in school and intelligence. Children with a reading disorder read slowly and have difficulty understanding what they read. They may have difficulty with word recognition and confuse words that look similar. A reading disorder is sometimes called dyslexia.
  • Mathematics disorder - A mathematics disorder is present when a child has problems with skills related to numbers, such as counting, copying numbers correctly, adding and carrying numbers, learning multiplication tables, recognizing mathematical signs and understanding mathematical operations.
  • Disorder of written expression - A disorder of written expression is present when a child has difficulty with writing skills, such as understanding grammar and punctuation, spelling, paragraph organization or composing written information. Often these children also have poor handwriting skills.

How are learning disorders diagnosed

A comprehensive evaluation by educational and mental health professionals includes educational and psychological testing, as well as talking with the child and parents. A comprehensive evaluation identifies whether a child has a learning disorder as well as learning strengths and weaknesses. Results of the evaluation are used to determine educational needs, identify the best school placement and determine the possible benefit of any additional therapies such as speech therapy or family psychotherapy to maximize the child's learning potential and quality of life.

Treatment for learning disorders:

Specific treatment for learning disorders will be determined by the coordinated effort of your child's physician and mental health and educational professionals based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health and medical history
  • Extent of the disorder
  • Type of disorder
  • Your child's tolerance for specific therapies/supports
  • Expectations for the course of the disorder
  • Your opinion or preference

Learning disorders are treatable. A coordinated effort between parents, teachers and mental health professionals provides the basis for individualized treatment strategies that may include individual or group remediation and special classes or resources.

Prevention of learning disorders:

Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of learning disorders are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of academic difficulties and improve the quality of life experienced by children with learning disorders.

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