Health Library

Categories > Children’s Health > Learning disabilities

Bright kid, bad grades
Watch for red flags
Is your child at risk?
What to do

Other learning problems
Other learning problems

Not every disorder that affects learning is considered a learning disability. These conditions don’t fall under the learning disability umbrella:

  • mental retardation
  • autism
  • attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (however, approximately one-third of people with learning disabilities have these disorders, too)

The language of learning disabilities
The language of learning disabilities

When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, you’ll be exposed to a whole new vocabulary. Words you may need to know include:

Dyslexia—a disorder that generally affects reading, writing and spelling. Kids with dyslexia tend to write letters or words backward and read below grade level.

Dyscalculia—a disability that affects how a child computes simple math (say, learning to count by twos and threes) and understand concepts like time and money.

Dysgraphia—a disorder is characterized by messy handwriting and an inability to organize thoughts and ideas in a coherent manner.

Dyspraxia—a condition that affects fine motor skills such as drawing, writing and buttoning.

A child’s occasional struggle with schoolwork is normal, caused by distractions such as a skipped breakfast or an argument with a friend. But for some kids, ongoing issues with school can be traced to a learning disability—difficulty with absorbing, processing and storing information. That translates to poor reading, writing, listening, communicating or math skills. While learning disabilities can present lifelong challenges, early diagnosis and intervention are key to overcoming them.

Watch for red flags

Nearly 3 million public school students—or roughly 5 percent—are diagnosed with learning disabilities. Warning signs include:

  • Language development delays. Children develop at different rates, and not every late talker has a learning disability. But by the time your child is 2 1/2, he or she should be able to speak in simple sentences. By your child’s third birthday, you should understand what he or she says at least half the time.
  • A short attention span. Preschoolers should be able to sit still long enough to listen to a short story. As they get older, their focus should increase.
  • Coordination problems. By about age 5, kids should be able to hop, button, zip and use scissors to cut paper.

Is your child at risk?

Learning disabilities affect children of every race and economic background. Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes them, but they do know that some kids face an increased risk, such as those who:

  • Have a family history of learning disabilities. It’s not uncommon for a parent to recognize his or her own academic struggles in a child with learning disabilities.
  • Experienced a difficult birth. Some learning disabilities have been linked to problems during pregnancy and birth—for example, drug or alcohol use by an expectant mom, a prolonged labor or a lack of oxygen during delivery.
  • Have certain health issues. Malnutrition, lead exposure and head injuries have been linked to learning problems.
  • Are boys. Learning disorders seem to affect more boys than girls, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What to do

Although learning disabilities can occur at any age, they’re most often detected when kids hit school age and reading, writing and math skills come into play. If you suspect your child might have a learning disability, talk with his or her teachers and pediatrician. Their observations can help clarify the problem. Consider consulting with other professionals such as speech and occupational therapists, eye and ear physicians, psychologists and learning specialists.

Once you have an accurate diagnosis, your pediatrician can direct you to programs and services that can benefit your child, help him or her overcome academic challenges and truly blossom. For example, a speech therapist can improve communication skills and reading and math specialists can decipher troublesome concepts. Individualized instruction like a curriculum that builds on your child’s strengths can instill confidence and hone skills. The bottom line: Be supportive and encouraging and don’t be afraid to seek help.

With proper treatment, your child doesn’t have to be held back by a learning disability. Just look at Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Nelson Rockefeller—some of the country’s most brilliant and celebrated citizens—all of whom had learning disabilities.