Is Left-Handedness a Sign of a Learning Disability?

Distinguishing Fact From Fiction With Left-Handedness

Do you remember when you realized your child preferred to use their right hand over their left, or perhaps the other way around? Parents typically begin to notice hand dominance when babies first reach for and grasp objects. Many parents, however, express concern when their children display left-handedness.

You may have heard that left-hand dominance is a sign of a learning disability. Rest assured, in most cases, left-handedness is a normal part of child development. While it is possible for left-handedness to coexist with learning disabilities or other health concerns, this is the exception and not the rule. This review of left-handedness in children will help you separate fact from fiction.

Girl writing with left hand

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How Hand Dominance Develops

Babies begin to show a preference for one hand over the other even before birth, and that preference continues to develop throughout childhood. While hand dominance is influenced by genetics, other factors such as environmental and cultural influences also appear to play a role. Researchers believe that as the brain grows, differences in development of the right and left sides of the brain may account for which hand a child becomes more comfortable using.

Research has shown that left-handedness is more common among individuals with certain cognitive disorders, such as autism, ADHD, and developmental coordination disorder (DCD). The mechanisms involved in the relationship of hand preference to these conditions are still unknown.

One theory is that left-handedness results when some factor interferes with normal brain development, causing the brain to "shift" the dominant hand to the other side; presumably, this same factor would cause the other cognitive or neurological issues. But most left-handed people do not have any associated learning disabilities.

Keep in mind that these findings are a matter of ongoing debate among scientists, due to differences in how hand preference and learning skills are measured. For this reason, it is difficult to make any conclusive statements about the link between handedness and cognitive ability.

Hereditary Left-Handedness

Are there left-handers in your family? Studies show that multiple genes play a role in passing on this trait. But while it does have a hereditary component, left-handedness is uncommon, showing up in just 10-15% of Western populations. If left-handedness was present generations ago in your family and has now shown up in your child's hand preference, you may not even realize that it's a part of your or your partner's genetic makeup.

If left-handedness runs in your family, know that hereditary left-handedness is a natural difference, akin to eye and hair color differences.

When to Worry About Left-Handedness

There are times when left-handedness may be a sign of a greater issue related to cognitive development. If you do not have any left-handers in your family, or if your child has experienced any other signs or symptoms of a learning disability, this may be more likely.

What are some conditions that raise the likelihood that left-handedness is related to a disability rather than being a superficial difference such as eye color?

  • A child who is both left-handed and demonstrates signs of learning disabilities: If your child is left-handed and exhibits early signs and symptoms of learning disabilities or developmental delays, you may rightfully be concerned.
  • A child who is left-handed and also has risk factors for developmental delays or learning disabilities: Some risk factors for learning disabilities include neglect or abuse, a lack of prenatal nutrition or medical care, and parental substance abuse. Consider whether your child was exposed to any of these influences prenatally or in early childhood.
  • Some childhood illnesses, congenital conditions, and injuries: If your left-handed child has experienced severe illnesses such as meningitis, developmental disorders such as spina bifida, or accidents leading to brain injuries, talk with your doctor about your concerns.
  • Deafness: Children who are deaf are 2.2 times more likely to be left-handed than their non-deaf peers.

If these or other developmental disabilities are not a concern for your child, then their left-handedness is most likely just a part of their normal development.

Should You Attempt to Change Your Child's "Handedness?"

Your child will naturally use the hand they feel most capable of using for any given task. They may show a dominant left-hand preference or may use both hands to varying degrees, depending on the task and what they feel is the best way to do it.

Attempting to change left-handedness can lead to additional learning frustrations and self-esteem issues. Given this consideration, don't coerce or ridicule your child into using their right hand when they are inclined to use their left.

Evaluating Concerns

If you believe there is a possibility that your child's hand dominance is connected to a learning disability, it is important to remember that hand choice itself is not the cause of the condition. Even if hand choice is connected, it is simply another aspect of your child's development and should not be considered a problem to be "fixed."

If you are concerned about the possibility of your child having a learning disability, you may wish to begin by talking with their pediatrician. Your child's doctor can help you decide if there is a reason for concern and can refer you to early childhood intervention programs.

If your child is age 3 or older, you may also contact your local public school district for information on diagnosis, evaluation, and special education services.

A Word From Verywell

Left-handedness in and of itself is not a cause for concern, especially if there have been other left-handers in your family. If you feel worried that your child may have a learning disability, however, it is important to talk to your pediatrician right away. Early intervention can play a big role in helping your child learn coping strategies.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.