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Learning Disabilities

What is a Learning Disability?

learning What exactly is a learning disability? Don’t all people have some form of learning difficulty? Aren’t learning disabilities simply a matter of degree? Four experts weigh in on the most common questions about learning disabilities pondered by parents:

Candace Cortiella:
Certainly everyone has strengths and weaknesses and, to a certain extent, every individual may have one or more of the characteristics associated with learning disabilities. The number of characteristics and, more importantly, the degree to which these characteristics interfere with life and learning is the determining factor. When one’s assets (strengths) can’t compensate for one’s deficits (weaknesses) in most or all aspects of life, then a diagnosis of “learning disabilities” is in order.

Equally, if not more, important, is the issue of an individual’s need for specialized instruction (especially in K-12) as well as accommodations (in post-secondary education and the workplace) in order to learn and perform life skills at the same rate and to the same level of proficiency as those without learning disabilities.

Gail Grodzinsky, Ph.D.:
A learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems that cause a person to have difficulty acquiring certain skills. The skills most often affected are reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, and reasoning. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

When a child’s learning style or pattern of learning impacts a critical developmental skill, for example, memory problems that may affect learning to read or remembering the multiplication tables — and, depending on the severity and importance of the effected skill, the child is said to have a leaning disability. For example, reading is a necessary skill, and if you have difficulty learning to read, you are considered to be learning-disabled. In contrast, singing is not considered a prerequisite skill in reading or math; hence, the inability to carry a tune does not put you at risk for school failure.

Sheldon Horowitz, Ed.D.:
A learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information. The term “learning disability” is used to describe the seeming unexplained and unexpected difficulty a person has in acquiring basic academic skills. These skills are essential for success at school and work, and for coping with life in general. A learning disability is not a single disorder. It is a term that refers to a group of disorders.

A learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information. A person can be of average or above-average intelligence, not have any major sensory problems (like blindness or hearing impairment), and yet struggle to keep up with people of the same age in learning and social situations.

Learning disabilities are characterized by a gap between the level of achievement that is expected and what is actually being achieved. They become apparent in different ways with different people and manifest themselves differently during different stages of development. They can also affect social-emotional skills and behavior.

David Urion, M.D.:
A learning disability may best be defined as a neurologically-based problem in one or several, but not many, areas of cognitive functioning that is not explained by a general problem of intelligence, a sensory disturbance (i.e., a hearing loss or visual loss), a primary neurologic disorder, a psychiatric disorder, or some form of social deprivation or failure to attend school, and which leads to a deficit in learning when compared to what may be expected based upon the child’s level of cognitive potential. There are many ways of subdividing learning disabilities, but most neurologists prefer to divide them along the lines of basic neurologic functions served by the brain — for example, language-based learning disabilities or visual-spatial learning disabilities.

While all of us are a mixture of strengths and challenges, children with learning disabilities exhibit discrepancies between their areas of challenge and their overall cognitive abilities that are outside the range of usual variation in the population. That is, a learning disability is defined by a statistical discrepancy between overall ability and certain domains of cognitive ability. To that extent, learning disabilities are a matter of degree. All of us have slightly different body temperatures, but we can all agree that, when a child has a temperature of 104 degrees, it is not a normal variant but a fever.

Cheryl Weinstein, Ph.D.:
A learning disability, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), is a disorder in one or more of the basic cognitive abilities involved in understanding or using spoken or written language. This may lead to an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

Some experts have questioned whether this definition of learning disability is appropriate for learning-disabled adults. Dr. Robert Mapou, Vice President of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, suggests that a different definition is needed and describes an adult learning disability as being present from birth and influencing a specific area of cognitive functioning as well as the entire course of personality development. Difficulties can occur and co-exist with good intelligence and many other good abilities (e.g., excellent silent reading abilities but poor oral reading, spelling and writing). The specific weaknesses in cognition occur in a way that makes sense based on what we know about the brain, and these weaknesses can affect spoken language, written language, mathematics, visual abilities, executive functions and problem-solving abilities, attention, or learning and memory. A learning disability may also limit one or more aspects of a person’s life (e.g., school, work, home and social life). In addition, the learning problems are not better explained by an acquired neurological disorder either in childhood or later in life, mental retardation, and cultural factors such as not speaking English as a first language, economic circumstances, psychiatric disorders, or lack of education.

There is normal variation in all performances. We don’t generally expect an individual to be equally strong in all areas. One can also move from an area of competence to an area of weakness, but we hope that individuals elect to work in their areas of strength. For example, I hope I am performing successfully as a neuropsychologist using my verbal strengths. If I made the poor choice of working as an engineer on Boston’s Big Dig, my problems in that work environment would not represent a learning disability. Instead, I would have made a very bad decision, since mathematics and dealing with spatial relationships are not my areas of strength.

A learning disability is not the result of a poor choice made by someone. It is the result of specific learning problems in an individual with good intellect. The learning performances for these individuals are at least 1.5 to 2 standard deviations below their intellect. For example, if an individual has an overall intellect at the 50th percentile rank and their reading skills are at the 2nd percentile rank, the diagnosis of a reading disability would be in order.

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