Your child is struggling in school. You’ve noticed some warning signs and you think it’s possible they have a learning disability or disorder. What do you do? Where do you start? This guide will give you a starting point and help you along the path to becoming educated and informed.
Disabilities vs. Disorders
It can be difficult to understand the difference between a disorder and a disability. The difference is primarily the context in which the term is used. A “disorder” is a term used predominantly within the medical community. It refers to some process of the body or mind that is not working as it should. Autism spectrum disorders and auditory processing disorder are good examples of this.
The term “disability” is primarily used within the education and social services communities. A student may receive a specific learning disability as their diagnosis and qualifier to receive support from their school. People can experience both physical and intellectual disabilities, but both refer to the inability to perform certain skills at the same level as their peers. Individuals with learning disabilities often have average to above-average intelligence but struggle to achieve in certain areas.
Are Learning Disabilities Genetic?
There are many different factors that can contribute to an individual having a learning disability. Genetics and family history are the primary factor. If there is a family history of intellectual disorders or disabilities, a child may be more likely to develop one themselves. Some intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome, are a direct result of chromosomal abnormalities. However, genetics is not the only factor to consider when diagnosing a disability.
What Causes Learning Disabilities?
Problems relating to pregnancy or birth can also affect the likelihood of disability. Common risks include exposure to drugs or alcohol in utero, infection during pregnancy, premature birth, low birth weight, or inadequate growth in the uterus. Psychological or physical trauma in the early years can also contribute to the development of learning disabilities, in addition to mental health struggles. Emotional and physical abuse, as well as head injuries, are often associated with developmental delays and difficulties.
Common Signs of Learning Disabilities
Disabilities are individualized and can look different for every person. Two people within the same disability category may have varying struggles and strengths. Due to the wide variety of factors and symptoms, it is imperative to receive a diagnosis from a professional. The average person may be able to recognize warning signs but will not have the ability to determine an accurate diagnosis. An official diagnosis from a professional is also required to receive specialized services and accommodations.
Common signs of learning disabilities in children:
- Short attention span and difficulty focusing.
- Poor memory.
- Difficulty with following directions.
- Poor hand-eye or body coordination.
- Trouble with reading and comprehension.
- Difficulty understanding new concepts.
- Trouble learning the alphabet, days of the week, numbers, etc.
- Speaks later than most children.
- Slow vocabulary growth.
- Poor reading/writing abilities.
Other signs of a child with a learning disability might include:
- Says one thing, means another.
- Problems dealing with new things in life.
- Doesn’t adjust well to change.
- Reverses letters.
- Immature way of speaking.
- Places letters in sentences incorrectly.
How Can I Get a Diagnosis?
Learning disabilities are most often determined through school-based testing. Testing is conducted by a team of professionals that may include a school psychologist, a special education teacher, a speech therapist, a behavior analyst, and/or an occupational therapist. The testing will determine if the student qualifies as having a specific learning disability. The team will then work together to create an education plan to meet the student’s specific needs.
However, there are other options for more private or medically-based testing, as well. Pediatric neuropsychological testing and neuropsychological testing more generally are both completed in a clinical setting. A neuropsychologist may test the following:
- Cognitive function.
- Motor and sensory skills.
- Spatial perception.
- Verbal ability.
What Are the Different Types of Learning Disabilities?
“Learning disabilities” is technically a term that acts as an umbrella and covers a wide array of specific disabilities. Auditory processing disorder (APD) causes you to have difficulty processing sound. Students with APD may have difficulty understanding verbal instruction and figurative language, ignoring background noise, or differentiating similar sounding words. Dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyslexia are all learning disabilities that cause a deficit in one specific area. Dyscalculia affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and math symbols. Dysgraphia affects a person’s fine motor skills and ability to write. Dyslexia is the most well-known of the three and affects a person’s ability to read and process language.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is probably the most well-known and common diagnosis, but it is not actually considered to be a learning disability. ADHD primarily affects one’s ability to maintain focus and control impulsive behavior. A student who receives this diagnosis may still qualify for special services, but it is under the category of other health impairment.
What Resources Are Available?
Diving into the world of disabilities can be extremely overwhelming. There are a host of medical, scientific, legal, and academic aspects to diagnosing and addressing a disability. Acronyms like IEP, ER, ABA, IDEA, and HIPAA are tossed around by professionals and often leave parents feeling lost. Finding an advocate to help you navigate this process can be a stress reliever to families and ensure that you receive the best possible care and services.
A school advocate can walk you through the process of obtaining a diagnosis and the appropriate services for your student. The advocate can work directly with your school on the implementation of a 504 Plan or individualized education plan (IEP) and help educate you on your rights. The advocate will be well-versed in the legal requirements of your specific state. Advocates are also an invaluable resource for college students that are experiencing academic difficulties.
We hope this guide has been informative and inspired you to action. The earlier the intervention, the greater the chance is for academic success. There are laws in place to protect the rights of students and parents. There are so many resources available, you just have to take the first step and seek them out by taking action and becoming informed.