What is Learning Disability?
Learning disability (LD) is a disorder in which the child has difficulty in learning or assimilating information that is easy for other children. LD is usually caused by neurological factors, which include abnormal functioning of the brain due to faulty structure or hormonal imbalance.
Children with learning disability are usually of average or above average intelligence. However, scholastic failure is one of the telling signs of LD since these children, despite being intelligent, are unable to process information in a way that is required for good academic performance. LD can impede a child's ability to read, write or compute mathematical problems.
What are the different types of LD?
Learning consists of various components like reading, processing, memorizing, associating and writing. Dysfunction in any of these areas may account for the disability in learning. Some of the common types of learning disabilities are:
- Dyslexia – it is the most common type of LD. Children with dyslexia have a problem with language. This may pan out to all aspects of language like reading, writing and memorizing. Dyslexic children usually spell words backwards or may inverse the shape of the letter, eg., may write 'd' instead of 'b'.
- Dyscalculia – the child with dyscalculia has a problem with mathematics. He may have difficulty in understanding the concept of addition, subtraction, time, money etc. A dyscalculic child may not identify the symbols like '+' and "-" and may be confused about the use of numbers.
- Dysgraphia – this LD is characterized by an inability to write properly. The child may confuse the shapes of letters and may write illegibly. The child often has a problem spelling words correctly, which may also be compounded by a problem in hearing.
- Dyspraxia – problem in motor activities which leads to difficulty in learning is called dyspraxia. The child is unable to coordinate his body movements effectively and thus has difficulty in manipulating objects. These children have trouble putting pieces together (as in jigsaw puzzles), holding a pencil or walking.
- Autism (link) – a disability in which the child has trouble relating to people and does not participate in social actions. He has repetitive stereotyped actions and learning is more by imitation than by initiative. Mental retardation and LD are almost always associated with autism.
- ADHD (link) – the ADHD child may have difficulty in learning due to extreme distractibility and impulsivity. The concentration span is very short and does not allow appropriate assimilation of knowledge.
What are the causes?
LD is caused by a variety of reasons, none of which can be clearly outlined. Since it is a neurological disorder, it is basically caused by a structural abnormality in the brain. These structural abnormalities may occur in various parts of the brain associated with language, motor activities, spatial relations and visual input.
LD seems to have a hereditary basis. It tends to run in families and may be passed on from parents to their children. It is often seen that learning disabled children have a parent who also has a problem with assimilation and expression of information.
Prenatal influences may include exposure to alcohol, drugs and blood group incompatibility. Consumption of alcohol or drugs by the mother during pregnancy may affect the neurological development of the baby. The baby's brain development may be hampered by drugs which do not allow the brain cells to differentiate adequately. Heavy use of alcohol may cause a condition called Fetal Alcoholic Syndrome (FAS) which leads to intellectual impairment and LD.
Problems during birth may also be responsible. In difficult pregnancies, the child may have to be delivered by forceps. This may damage the brain of the newborn leading to difficulties in learning. Premature birth may also be a cause of LD. Babies weighing less than 2 kg are at an increased risk of brain damage and LD. Circumstances like nutritional deprivation, child abuse and lead poisoning etc. may also lead to problems in learning after birth.
How is it identified?
Learning disabilities may often be mistaken for mental retardation. A dyspraxic child may begin to walk later than other children and may not be able to coordinate his activities for a long time. Since these children may acquire their motor milestones later than most children, they may initially be termed intellectually impaired. The true extent of the disability may not be evident till a child starts school.
LD is most often identified when the child starts attending school. Inability to read, write and speak fluently is not noticed before the child's formal education begins. The signs that are noticed in school may raise the suspicion of LD are:
- Repeated scholastic failures or academic under-achievement.
- Distractibility of the child and lack of concentration in classroom activities.
- Sporadic performance in academics – eg., a dyslexic child may show excellent performance in Maths but may fail in English, or a dysgraphic child may perform very well in oral tests but may fail the written ones.
- The child's inability to relate well with peers and enjoy group activities.
- Frequent loss of direction when the child seems to forget the steps of an activity midway through it.
- Under-confidence and lack of self-esteem in the child.
How is it diagnosed?
LD is diagnosed by a qualified child psychologist in association with a paediatrician by administering a series of tests to identify the "problem" areas. There are various checklists available which help to identify the lag in specific areas of intellectual functioning. If the child has a problem in speaking, a speech therapist will diagnose the exact area of dysfunction and the therapy is planned accordingly.
How is it treated?
Since LD is not a disease it cannot be 'treated'. Approaches to the treatment of children with LD are psychological and educational. A child with LD is usually admitted to a special school or integrated within a normal school with classes for special children. Since their educational needs are different from their non-disabled peers, they may be given special academic sessions in an integrated set up. In all other activities, they participate with other children.
Speech therapy may be given to children with speech disorder and physiotherapy to those with motoric deficits. Special activities are designed for children with ADHD to increase their concentration span.
There are various schools and support groups working for the rehabilitation of individuals with LD. These schools provide special and individualised education to children with LD and help to make adults, with severe disability, gainfully employed. Evaluation of such individuals are also periodically done to check for improvement so that they can be integrated into the mainstream society as soon as possible.