A learning disability is any problem or disorder that interferes with the development of basic skills, and negatively affects a person's ability to learn. Most people affected by learning abilities are of average intelligence and had a normal upbringing and education. Learning disabilities are often defined in terms of academic deficits, but the underlying source of the disability is in the person's ability to understand and retain skills and knowledge. Learning disabilities may result in problems with attention, memory, reasoning, communication, behavior, or coordination.
In many cases, it is impossible to determine the exact cause of a person's learning disability. There are many contributing factors, and any one of them (or a combination of them) may result in a learning disability.
The first potential cause is minor brain or nerve damage. Even minor damage to part of the brain or the nerves leading to the brain can result in problems with memory, orientation, perception, or language. Malnutrition or illness can also result in a learning disability, since the brain may be deprived of oxygen or nutrients. Prolonged malnutrition or chemical imbalance can delay and permanently damage the development of the nervous system. Abnormally fast or slow fetal development is linked to learning disabilities, as well as the lack of frontal lobe development and dopamine pathways in the brain.
A mother's use of drugs, tobacco, or alcohol during pregnancy causes the unborn child's brain to be deprived of oxygen, and often causes brain damage that results in a learning disability. Medical research has also shown that children who require certain medications, or who are exposed to hazardous substances (such as mercury or lead), are more likely to have learning disabilities.
A disability may also develop from lack of early learning experiences, or inadequate mental stimulation. Learning disabilities may also be inherited.
There are many types of learning disabilities. Perceptual disorders hinder the brain's ability to interpret and organize sights and sounds. Those affected by perceptual disorders often have trouble reading, since they may not be able to pinpoint where one word ends and the next begins. They may also have trouble learning to speak, since they may not be able to distinguish between words that sound alike.
Another group of learning disabilities affects memory. These disabilities make it difficult to recall what common items look like, or what sounds certain objects and animals sound like. Those affected by memory disabilities often have difficulty learning sequences, such as the alphabet.
Some learning disabilities interfere with a person's ability to concentrate on a single task. These are known as attention deficit disorders (ADD). Those affected by ADD are easily distracted, daydream, and cannot focus their attention on a single task for more than a few minutes. Another type of concentration disorder is perseveration, and those affected by it cannot easily shift their attention from one task to another.
Behavior problems are also caused by learning disabilities. Hyperactivity is a common condition which affects children, resulting in them not being able to sit still. They act and speak on impulse, and quickly become impatient. Emotional lability is a disorder that causes mood changes for no apparent reason.
Orientation-related disabilities affect a person's sense of direction, distance, and space. People with this condition are often unaware of where they are, even if they are in a familiar setting. They often have difficulty distinguishing up from down and left from right. This often causes reading problems, since they cannot remember which direction to read in or distinguish between similar letters (such as b and d).
Muscle control disorders can cause clumsiness and balance problems. Some of these learning disabilities prevent certain types of movement. Two common muscle control disorders are dyspraxia (the inability to properly move the lips and tongue during speech) and dysgraphia (problems controlling the finger muscles for writing and typing).
Psycholinguistic disorders are learning disabilities that block the development of language skills. The most common psycholinguistic disorder is dyslexia, which interferes with the person's ability to properly understand written words and numbers. Dysphasia is a disorder that hinders the person's ability to produce or understand speech.
Nonverbal learning disabilities interfere with the ability to understand facial expressions and body language, often resulting in social problems and inappropriate behavior.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
There are many symptoms that someone with a learning disability may present. The most prevalent is the discrepancy between academic ability and achievement. This will often be identified by teachers or counselors. An abnormal attention span is also a commonly presented symptom. Slow vocabulary growth, restlessness, distractibility, impulsiveness, organization problems, reading and writing difficulties, and weak social skills are also common.
Diagnosis of a learning disability often requires several tests by eye and ear specialists, psychiatrists, and social workers. These tests will help eliminate social or emotional problems, and poor sight or hearing as the cause of the abnormality. Once other causes have been eliminated, an in-depth evaluation is required. The evaluation is based on two factors: the age of the person, and the difficulties and symptoms being displayed. The evaluation assesses the person's intellectual potential, motor development, learning style, and intellectual strengths and weaknesses.
Early diagnosis and intervention are essential for people with learning disabilities. Without early identification and intervention, learning disabilities may lead to low self-esteem, academic frustration and underachievement, juvenile delinquency, and even illiteracy.
Treating someone with a learning disability requires knowledge as to the type and severity of the disability. Many learning-disabled children learn best in special classes with other students with similar problems. Modified or supplemental programs with slow-paced instruction and repetitive exercises also benefit many children. Students with specific disabilities, such as dysgraphia (problems controlling the finger muscles for writing), may only need a method to compensate for their disability, such as a tape recorder for recording lectures instead of taking notes.
Special exercises help many people with learning disabilities improve their areas of weakness. Medication is also a common treatment for people with attention deficit disorders and hyperactivity. Other common treatments include biofeedback, special diets, and counseling.
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