Overview of Learning Disabilities

Symptoms, Signs, and Characteristics of Learning Disabilities

Teacher Kneeling by Desk, Helping a Young Student
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Learning disabilities are neurological differences in processing information that limit a person's ability to learn in a specific skill area. That is, these disorders are the result of actual differences in the way the brain processes, understands, and uses information. Everyone has differences in learning abilities, but many people with learning disabilities have severe problems that persist throughout their lives.

There is no "cure" for learning disabilities. Special education programs can help people cope and compensate for these disorders, but the learning disability will last a lifetime. Learning disabled people may have difficulty in school or on the job. These disabilities may also impact independent living and social relationships.

Signs and Symptoms

Learning disabilities are usually first noticed when children begin to underachieve or fail in school. Parents and preschool teachers are often the first to see early signs of learning disabilities. Children may have difficulty learning basic skills in reading or understanding reading. Difficulty writing, math, or language may also signal a problem. Some students may easily learn basic skills but have difficulty applying skills in problem-solving or higher level school work.

Living with learning disabilities can be a painful struggle for both the parents and the child. In many cases, parents are relieved to find an answer when children are diagnosed. The diagnosis is reassuring because it leads to additional support in school through specially trained teachers and special education programs. Students with learning disabilities will also have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) developed to address their specific needs.

Children who qualify as learning disabled are supported with specially designed instruction based on each child's unique strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles.

Causes and Diagnosis

Learning disabilities are believed to be caused by neurological differences in the way the brain processes information. Simply put, a person has a learning disability when their ability to learn an academic area is much lower than expected for their age and/or level of intelligence. It is a common misconception about learning disabilities that people who have them cannot learn or are less intelligent than their peers. Actually, this is not the case. People with learning disabilities are actually as intelligent as their peers. In fact, it is even possible to have a learning disability and be gifted as well. The actual difference is that people with learning disabilities learn differently and may need a variety of instructional practices to learn effectively.

In the diagnosis of learning disabilities, the discrepancy is usually determined through assessment to determine the child's intelligence quotient, or IQ score, as well as their achievement test scores in specific academic areas of reading, math, and written language. Language processing, listening comprehension, and oral expression may also be assessed.

A complete review of the student's educational history is conducted to rule out other possible explanations for the difference in skill development and IQ before a learning disability is diagnosed.

Early detection and intervention for learning disabilities are critical. If you suspect your child has a learning problem, find out how to recognize common signs of or a potential disability.​

Are Learning Disabilities Biological?

True learning disabilities (LDs) are believed to be an organic type of disability resulting from neurological processing problems that cause difficulty with learning and applying skills in one or more academic areas. Evidence suggests that a child's chances of having a learning disability increase when parents or other relatives also have learning disabilities. This suggests that heredity may play a role in some cases. However, there are other possible causes of LDs that can be prevented in some cases.

Do You Suspect a Learning Disability?

If you suspect your child may have a learning disability, learn how to make a referral for assessment for your child. These articles will walk you step by step through the referral process for an evaluation to determine if your child has a learning disability or other type of educational disability.

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.