About Learning Disabilities

  • What is a learning disability?
  • Who do learning disabilities affect?
  • What causes learning disabilities?
  • Do children grow out of a learning disability?
  • What about diagnosis?
  • What are the signs?
  • What can a family do?

What is a learning disability?

“Learning Disabilities” refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.

Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, but are not limited to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making).

Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

  • oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding)
  • reading (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension)
  • written language (e.g. spelling and written expression)
  • mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving)

Learning disabilities may also involve difficulties with organizational skills, social perception, social interaction and perspective taking.

Learning disabilities are lifelong. The way in which they are expressed may vary over an individual’s lifetime, depending on the interaction between the demands of the environment and the individual’s strengths and needs. Learning disabilities are suggested by unexpected academic under-achievement or achievement which is maintained only by unusually high levels of effort and support.

Who do learning disabilities affect?

Learning Disabilities affect approximately 10% of the population, or 2.7 million residents of Canada. Anyone can have a learning disability. People with learning disabilities are found among all socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic groups.

What causes learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors or injury that alters brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more processes related to learning. These disorders are not due primarily to hearing and/or vision problems, socio-economic factors, cultural or linguistic differences, lack of motivation or ineffective teaching, although these factors may further complicate the challenges faced by individuals with learning disabilities. Learning disabilities may co-exist with various conditions including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensoryimpairments or other medical conditions. For success, individuals with learning disabilities require early identification and timely specialized assessments and interventions involving home, school, community and workplace settings. The interventions need to be appropriate for each individual’s learning disability subtype and, at a minimum, include the provision of:

  • specific skill instruction
  • accommodations
  • compensatory strategies
  • self-advocacy skills

Do children grow out of a learning disability?

A child with learning disabilities becomes an adult with learning disabilities. However, with early and adequate identification, together with remediation, a child can learn to cope and to succeed. Such a child can grow up to be a fully independent adult, enjoying social, academic and career success.

For adults, with learning disabilities who were not identified and/or who did not receive appropriate help, there is still hope. Given the right types of educational experiences, people have a remarkable ability to learn. Adults have a wealth of life experiences to build on as they learn, and often determination that many children don’t have.

What about diagnosis?

Parents are usually the first to notice obvious delays in their child reaching early milestones. The pediatrician may also observe certain delays. But, the classroom teacher may be the first to notice the child’s difficulties in reading writing or arithmetic.

Learning disabilities may be informally flagged by observing significant delays in the child’s skill development. A two-year delay in the elementary grades is usually considered significant. Actual diagnosis of learning disabilities is made using standardized tests that compare the child’s level of ability to what is considered normal development for a person of that age and intelligence.

What are the signs?

Some common signs of learning disabilities include:

  • a significant discrepancy between tested potential and performance
  • difficulty learning to read, write, spell, or with arithmetic
  • unevenness in school performance, (e.g. a good reader but very poor in arithmetic)
  • bright in conversation but can’t read
  • poor auditory and/or visual memory
  • difficulty following instructions
  • distractible and impulsive behaviour, with a short attention span
  • difficulty organizing and keeping track of time, activities, responsibilities and/or belongings
  • poor coordination and spatial disorientation
  • poor social skills and difficulty in maintaining friendships

What can a family do?

Joining a support group can make a positive difference. Support groups can be a source of information, practical suggestions, and understanding.

Obtaining resource materials will provide confidence and help in advocating for appropriate services.

Counseling, as a family and individually, can also be very helpful. It can help people develop greater self-control and a more positive attitude toward their own abilities. Developing self-esteem and interpersonal skills is just as important as developing academic skills.