Children with a learning disability have difficulty in collecting, categorizing, and/or performing on verbal
and nonverbal information. Generally, children with learning disabilities have trouble understanding or
using written or spoken language. The difficulty is due to a neurological difference in brain structure or
functioning. Learning disabilities are disorders that cause the brain to process information in a way that
obstructs learning. Most children with learning disabilities have average, nearly-average, or above
average intelligence. Untreated, learning disabilities can prevent a child from mastering the basics and
damage self-esteem and self confidence with lifelong effects.
School is often the setting where a child’s learning disability first becomes apparent. Areas of you may
notice problems are the following:
• language development and language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing, and spelling)
• social studies
• social skills
• motor skills (fine motor skills, as well as coordination)
• cognitive development and memory
• attention and organization
However, their academic performance, as measured by standardized tests, is below what one would
expect of someone of their intelligence, age, and grade level. Therefore, a person with a learning
disability may score poorly on tests, but the low scores are due to a problem with learning, not to low
Learning takes place in a series of interrelated steps. Information first has to be recorded in the brain
(input). This information then has to be organized and understood (integration). Next, the integrated
knowledge has to be stored, later to be retrieved (memory). Finally, one must be able to communicate
information from the brain to people or to the environment (output).
Learning disabilities are developmental disabilities. Developmental delays can occur in all five
areas of development or may just happen in one or more of those areas. Additionally, growth in each
area of development is related to growth in the other areas. So if there is a difficulty in one area (e.g.,
speech and language), it is likely to influence development in other areas (e.g., social and emotional).
Child development refers to the process in which children go through changes in skill development
during predictable time periods, called developmental milestones. A developmental delay occurs when
a child does not reach these milestones by the expected time period. For example, if the normal range
for learning to walk is between 9 and 15 months, and a 20-month-old child has still not begun walking,
this would be considered a developmental delay.
Differences between a learning disability and a developmental delay
Ordinarily, an individual has a learning disability when there’s a considerable difference between
intellectual ability and achievement. The person with a learning disability may have low or high
intelligence; the child simply learns below intellectual capability because of a processing disorder.
A developmentally delayed child is one who is younger than five years old and who is behind schedule
in attaining developmental milestones, but usually reaches the milestone, eventually. The
developmentally disabled child has severe and long-lived physical or mental impairments that limit
success in several major life areas, and this impairment begins in childhood. Developmental disabilities
include mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and autism. Low IQ is the largest characteristic of
someone with mental retardation.
Individuals with a learning disability generally have average or above average intelligence, yet they
often do not achieve at the same academic level as their peers. Weaker academic achievement,
particularly in reading, written language, and math, is perhaps the most basic characteristics of a
learning disability. Significant deficits often correlate in memory, awareness and understanding one's
thinking and cognitive processes; and social skills as well. However they are not mentally handicapped;
but cannot grasp information, and they must compensate for this disability.
Areas of Learning Difficulties
Reading: Individuals with a learning disability have difficulties in reading, decoding or recognizing
words (e.g., letter/sound omissions, distinctions, substitutions, reversals) or comprehending them (e.g.,
recalling or knowing basic facts, main ideas, sequences, or themes). They also may lose their places
while reading or reading in an uneven pace.
Another term used for reading disabilities is dyslexia. Dyslexia is best understood as a type of reading
disability. During early childhood, children with dyslexia have difficulties learning spoken language.
Later they have trouble decoding and spelling words and, consequently, are likely to experience
comprehension problems also. A reading disability affects every aspect of an individual's life, from the
early years of school when children learn to read, to later years when students are expected to read in
order to learn specific content, and into the community, home, and workplace where every person
needs to acquire and understand written information.
Written Language: Students with a learning disabilities exhibit problems in written language,
handwriting, spelling, sentence structure, vocabulary usage, volume of information produced, and
organization of written ideas. Many students also present difficulties in reading, writing, since both areas
Math: Poor math achievement may appear in learning difficulties such as distinguishing numbers and
copying shapes, recalling math facts, writing numbers legibly, and relating math terms to meaning.
Other weak areas may include complex reasoning and awareness, including identifying, using, and
lacks the knowledge of step-by-step problem-solving math procedures.
Memory: Some children with learning disabilities have defects in engaging memory. They have
difficulty processing information so that it can be stored in long-term memory. Difficulties in functioning
memory can lead to difficulties in long-term memory when a person needs to search for and retrieve
Cognitive Process: Individuals with learning disabilities may have deficits with awareness of how one
thinks and the perceiving what people are thinking. Many children with learning disabilities do not know
many effective cognitive strategies for acquiring, processing, storing, demonstrating, and
understanding of information.
Social and Behavioral Characteristics: Students with a learning disability may demonstrate social or
behavioral challenges. Some exhibit fewer socially acceptable behaviors than peers, are unable to
predict consequences for behaviors, misinterpret social cues, or are less likely to adapt their behavior
to different social situations. Paired with academic shortcomings, this experience can lead to lowered
self-worth and a feeling of incompetence.
Forms of Learning Disabilities
Input Disabilities: (Collecting Information): Information enters the brain through all five senses. With
learning, the most important ones are visual and auditory. Input is a central process and does not refer
to visual or knowledge; it refers to the process of recording information in the brain. Since input refers
to how one sees, hears, or perceives the world, the description for this essential process is perception.
Therefore, a child might have a visual perceptual or an auditory perceptual disability.
Visual Perception Disability: Children might have difficulty with subtle differences in position or in
relationships. A child might reverse letters like “s” for “e” or “E” for “3” or reverse words like “saw” for
“was.” He or she might confuse “d” and “b” and “p’ and “q.” A “3” might be rotated to look like an “in.”
This confusion with spatial positioning might show up in written work, copying designs, or in doing tasks
in which the eyes have to cue the hands as to what to do (i.e., visual motor tasks).
Types of visual perceptual problems are for example, when reading a page the child might skip words
or jump lines. If a desk or table is cluttered he or she might have difficulty focusing on the appropriate
task. Some children have trouble with depth perception and judging distances. The child might bump
into things or fall off a chair. He or she might knock over a glass or container because the distance is
misjudged and the hand gets there too soon. A final form of visual perceptual disabilities relates to
doing tasks such as eye and hand coordination, like catching a ball, doing a puzzle, or using a hammer.
The child will have difficulty with catching, hitting, kicking a ball or jumping rope.
Auditory Perception Disabilities: Some children have difficulty distinguishing slight differences in
sounds. The child might appear to misunderstand what you are saying and, thus, respond incorrectly.
Children might have difficulty with auditory comprehension. If there is background noise the child may
not listen when you are speaking. They may be distracted by the background rather than listening to
your words. It appears as if the child never pays attention. If you call his or her name first and get eye
contact the problem may improve. Some children cannot process sound inputs as fast as normal. They
have an auditory delay. If you speak at a normal pace they might miss part of what you are saying. You
may find that you normally speak slower with them.
Integration Disabilities (Sorting Information): All of the information recorded in the brain has to be
placed in sequence and understood. The ADD child might have difficulty in either area. For some the
problems are greater with auditory inputs, for others visual inputs.
Sequencing Disabilities: The child has difficulty telling or writing a story; the sequence of thoughts or
events is all mixed up; he or she may go from the middle to the end then to the start. You might write a
32 on the board but the child copies it as 23. Spelling errors may be noted; all of the letters are there,
but in the wrong sequence.
Abstraction Disabilities: A child with this disability will have difficulty knowing meanings to words or
phrases. The child might have difficulty with the difference between the words, “the dog” and “your
dog.” In a language exercise by reading a story about a policeman a teacher will to discuss the
policemen in the neighborhood. This child has difficulty going from the specific policeman in the story to
the concept of policemen in general.
Memory Disabilities (Storing Information): Once information has been received and recorded in the
brain and integrated, it has to be stored so that it can be retrieved later. There are two forms of
memory, short-term and long-term. Short-term memory is that which you can hold onto as long as you
are attending to it; (for example, getting a phone number from the information operator and holding it in
your head until you dial it) but which is lost when not attending to it (someone interrupts you before you
dial the number).
Long-term memory refers to information which has been repeated and stored so that it can be made
available by just thinking about it (for example, your home address). A child might have a short-term or
a long-term memory disability. This disability might be more for visual or for auditory information. For
example, you might go over a spelling list or a math concept with a child and he or she seems to know it
(he’s attending to it); yet, later you find that the child has lost it.
In contrast, he or she might remember things done weeks or months ago in great detail. A child with a
short-term memory disability may have to go over something 10-15 times to learn it (make it long-term
memory) whereas a child without this problem might be able to learn it in 3-5 repetitions.
Output Disabilities (Expressing Information): Information is communicated through words, language
output or through muscle activities (writing, drawing, gesturing, etc.) motor output. Children might have
one or both of these output disabilities.
Language Disabilities: There are two types of oral language, spontaneous language (we initiate a
conversation) and demand language (someone asks a question). With spontaneous language one can
organize thoughts and find the words before their spoken; with demand language one does all this as
one speaks. Some children have a demand language disability. What is confusing is that when he or
she speaks (spontaneous language) it sounds normal. When the same child is asked a question then
they may talk aimlessly or have trouble finding the right words. If you have a child in class who seems to
speak up when he or she wants to but refuses to answer any questions you ask, it is possible that he or
she is not misbehaving but might have a demand language disability.
Motor Disabilities: A child might have difficulty using large groups of muscles (gross motor disability).
This child may be clumsy, stumble, have trouble with walking, running, climbing, etc. Other children will
have difficulty getting groups of muscles to act as a team (fine motor disability). For example, to write,
you have to get the information from your brain to the many muscles of your dominant hand.
These muscles have to work in close coordination to produce written language. This child will have poor
handwriting. The child may have a thought but has trouble writing it down on paper at the same rate.
Causes of Learning Disabilities
Mental health professionals put emphasis on the fact that no one knows what causes learning
disabilities; it doesn't help parents to look backward to search for possible reasons. There are too many
possibilities to pin down the cause of the disability with certainty. It is far more important for the family to
move forward in finding ways to get the right help.
Once, scientists thought that all learning disabilities were caused by a single neurological problem. But
research has helped us see that the causes are more diverse and complex. New evidence seems to
show that most learning disabilities do not stem from a single, specific area of the brain, but from
difficulties in bringing together information from various brain regions. Scientists, however, do need to
study causes in an effort to identify ways to prevent learning disabilities.
Today, a leading theory is that learning disabilities originate from perplexing disturbances in brain
structures and functions. Some scientists believe that, in many cases, the disturbance begins before
Risk factors for learning and developmental problems fall into two categories:
The fact that learning disabilities tend to run in families indicates that there may be a genetic link. For
example, children who lack some of the skills needed for reading, such as hearing the separate sounds
of words, are likely to have a parent with a related problem. However, a parent's learning disability may
take a slightly different form in the child. A parent who has a writing disorder may have a child with an
expressive language disorder. For this reason, it seems unlikely that specific learning disorders are
inherited directly. Possibly, what is inherited is a complex brain dysfunction that can in turn lead to a
A person can inherit abnormal brain structure or function. Although a person may seem to have
inherited a learning disability, the environment can still make a difference. For instance, a child with a
learning disability who is raised in a good learning environment will have a better outcome than a child
brought up in a poor learning environment.
There may be an alternative explanation for why learning disabilities might appear to run in families.
Some learning difficulties may actually originate from the family environment. For example, parents who
have expressive language disorders might talk less to their children or the language they use may be
distorted. In such cases, the child lacks a good model for acquiring language and therefore, may seem
to be learning disabled.
Children are placed at genetic risk by being born with a genetic or chromosomal abnormality. A
good example of a genetic risk is Down syndrome, a disorder that causes developmental delay because
of an abnormal chromosome.
Before birth or during delivery
The genetic relationship is very important for healthy brain development in the fetus. Negative
influences on brain development in the uterus and at birth are:
• the mother’s drug-use, alcohol-use, or smoking during pregnancy
• physical problems during pregnancy or delivery (e.g. Oxygen deprivation)
• very low birth weight
• premature birth
• birth trauma or distress
• the mother’s poor nutrition
During delivery, the umbilical cord may become twisted and temporarily cut off oxygen to the fetus. This,
too, can impair brain functions and lead to a learning disability
Toxins in the Child's Environment
Environmental risk results from exposure to harmful agents either before or after birth, and can include
things like poor maternal nutrition or exposure to toxins (e.g. Lead or drugs) or infections that are
passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy (e.g., measles or HIV). Environmental risk also
includes a child's life experiences. For example, children who are born prematurely, face severe
poverty, mother's depression, poor nutrition, or lack of care are at increased risk for developmental
New brain cells and the natural language process continue to be produced for a year or so after the
child is born. These cells are vulnerable to certain disruptions as well. Researchers are looking into
environmental toxins that may lead to learning disabilities, possibly by disrupting childhood brain
development or brain processes.
Cadmium (a metallic element) and lead, both prevalent in the environment, are becoming a leading
focus of neurological research. Cadmium, used in making some steel products, can get into the soil,
then into the foods we eat. Lead was once common in paint and gasoline, and is still present in some
water pipes. A study of animals sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showed a connection
between exposure to lead and learning difficulties. In the study, rats exposed to lead experienced
changes in their brainwaves, slowing their ability to learn. The learning problems lasted for weeks, long
after the rats were no longer exposed to lead.
In addition, there is growing evidence that learning problems may develop in children with
cancer who had been treated with chemotherapy or radiation at an early age.
Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drug Use
Many drugs taken by the mother pass directly to the fetus. Research shows that a mother's use of
cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs during pregnancy may have damaging effects on the unborn child.
Therefore, to prevent potential harm to developing babies, the U.S. Public Health Service supports
efforts to make people aware of the possible dangers of smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
Scientists have found that mothers who smoke during pregnancy may be more likely to bear smaller
babies. This is a concern because small newborns, usually those weighing less than 5 pounds, tend to
be at risk for a variety of problems, including learning disorders.
Alcohol also may be dangerous to the fetus' developing brain. It appears that alcohol may distort the
developing neurons. Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy has been linked to fetal alcohol syndrome, a
condition that can lead to low birth weigh, intellectual impairment, hyperactivity, and certain physical
defects. Any alcohol use during pregnancy, however, may influence the child's development and lead to
problems with learning, attention, memory, or problem solving. Because scientists have not yet
identified "safe" levels, alcohol should be used cautiously by women who are pregnant or who may soon
Drugs such as Cocaine
Cocaine especially the smokable form known as crack seem to affect the normal development of brain
receptors. These brain cell parts help to transmit incoming signals from our skin, eyes, and ears, and
help regulate our physical response to the environment. Because children with certain learning
disabilities have difficulty understanding speech sounds or letters, some researchers believe that
learning disabilities, as well as ADHD, may be related to faulty receptors. Current research points to
drug abuse as a possible cause of receptor damage.
There are several general "warning signs" of possible delay. These include:
Behavioral Warning Signs
• Does not pay attention or stay focused on an activity for as long a time as other children of the
• Focuses on unusual objects for long periods of time; enjoys this more than interacting with others
• Avoids or rarely makes eye contact with others
• Gets unusually frustrated when trying to do simple tasks that most children of the same age can
• Shows aggressive behaviors and acting out and appears to be very stubborn compared with
• Displays violent behaviors on a daily basis
• Stares into space, rocks body, or talks to self more often than other children of the same age
• Does not seek love and approval from a caregiver or parent
Vision Warning Signs
• Seems to have difficulty following objects or people with her eyes
• Rubs eyes frequently
• Turns, tilts or holds head in a strained or unusual position when trying to look at an object
• Seems to have difficulty finding or picking up small objects dropped on the floor (after the age of
• Has difficulty focusing or making eye contact
• Closes one eye when trying to look at distant objects
• Eyes appear to be crossed or turned
• Brings objects too close to eyes to see
• One or both eyes appear abnormal in size or coloring
Hearing Warning Signs
• Talks in a very loud or very soft voice
• Seems to have difficulty responding when called from across the room, even when it is for
• Turns body so that the same ear is always turned toward sound
• Has difficulty understanding what has been said or following directions after 3 years of age
• Doesn't startle to loud noises
• Ears appear small or deformed
• Fails to develop sounds or words that would be appropriate at her age
In addition, because children usually acquire developmental milestones or skills during a specific time
frame or "window", is used to predict when most children will learn different skills. If a child is not
learning a skill that other children the same age are learning, that may be a "warning sign" that the child
may be at risk for developmental delay.
If a child has not mastered skills during a specific time frame, it does not mean your child is delayed. It’s
best that you let your child's doctor know about your concerns and actively monitor your child’s
progress. The child may also benefit from a developmental screening or assessment.
How Developmental Delays are Identified
Developmental delay is identified through two types of play-based assessments:
• Developmental Screening
• Developmental Evaluation
A developmental screening test is a quick and general measurement of skills. Its purpose is to
identify children who are in need of further evaluation. A screening test can be in one of two formats,
either a questionnaire that is handed to a parent or childcare provider that asks about developmental
milestones or a test that is given to your child by a health or educational professional.
A screening test is only meant to identify children who might have a problem. The screening
test may either over-identify or under-identify children with delay. As a result, a diagnosis cannot be
made simply by using a screening test. If the results of a screening test suggest a child may have a
developmental delay, the child should be referred for a developmental evaluation.
A developmental evaluation is a long, in-depth assessment of a child's skills and should be
administered by a highly trained professional, such as a Special Educator or Psychologist.
Evaluation tests are used to create a profile of a child's strengths and weaknesses in all developmental
areas. The results of a developmental evaluation are used to determine if the child is in need of early
intervention services and/or an Individual Education Program Plan (IEP).
At times, when a child has a delay in one area (i.e. Speech), it can affect other developmental
areas such as social or emotional. Therefore, it is crucial that a child receive intervention as soon