What Is a Learning Disability?
A learning disability is an area of weakness or inefficiency in brain function that significantly hinders our ability to learn. It is a pattern of neurological dysfunction in the brain that causes a person to have difficulty correctly receiving information (perception), correctly processing information (cognition/thinking), or satisfactorily responding to information (written and verbal expression, visual-motor coordination, memory, etc.)
People with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence. Many are gifted in math, science, fine arts, journalism, and other creative fields. A list of such people would include Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, and many others who have changed the course of our world.
However, their tremendous strengths are offset by noticeable weaknesses – an inability to read or write, memory problems, and difficulty understanding what is heard or seen. These difficulties stem, not from a physical problem with the eyes or ears, but rather from the basic neurological functioning of the brain.
Every human brain is created with a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. We each have certain subjects that make sense to us easily as well as areas of difficulty that require outside explanation and extra effort to understand.
Students with learning disabilities experience an imbalance in their own ability levels. They are very good at some things, very poor at others, and feel the tension between what they can and cannot do. Frustration is a hallmark of a student with learning disabilities. Typically such students will either be failing in one or more academic areas or be expending excessive amounts of energy to succeed. Also, they are also highly inconsistent, able to do a task one day and unable the next.
A psycho-educational battery of formal and informal tests is used to determine patterns of strength and weakness as compared to intellectual ability. Testing not only helps identify learning disabilities, but NILD uses testing data to determine the best kind of instruction for each child.
What Are the Types of Learning Disabilities?
Although learning deficits are as individual as thumbprints, most disabilities fall into the three basic categories:
dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.
“Dys” means difficulty with and “lexia” means words – thus “difficulty with words”. Originally the term “Dyslexia” referred to a specific learning deficit that hindered a person’s ability to read. More recently, however, it has been used as a general term referring to the broad category of language deficits that often includes the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words as well as the ability to read and spell words accurately and fluently. When breakdowns occur in these foundational reading skills, dyslexic students often struggle to understand what they read as well as develop vocabulary at a slower rate.
“Dys” means difficulty with and “graphia” means writing – thus “difficulty with writing”. The term dysgraphia refers to more than simply having poor handwriting. This term refers to those who struggle with the motor skills necessary to write thoughts on paper, spelling, and the thinking skills needed for vocabulary retrieval, clarity of thought, grammar, and memory.
“Dys” means difficulty with and “calculia” means calculations and mathematics – thus “difficulty with calculations and mathematics”. This term refers to those who struggle with basic number sense and early number concepts as well as have difficulties with math calculations and math reasoning.
What Causes a Learning Disability?
Some learning disabilities appear to be passed down from generation to generation. Occasionally certain medical conditions, such as neurological illnesses or chronic childhood ear infections, may also alter the neurological development or structure of the brain as well, creating a learning disability. Environmental factors such as cultural deprivation or parenting and teaching styles may heighten the impact of a neurological deficit, but they are not the cause.
Experts are not exactly sure what causes learning disabilities. They may be due to:
Problems during pregnancy and birth – Learning Disabilities may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth. They may also be caused by drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, low birth weight, lack of oxygen and premature or prolonged labor.
Incidents after birth – Head injuries, nutritional deprivation and exposure to toxic substances (i.e. lead) can contribute to learning disabilities.
Learning disabilities are not caused by economic disadvantage, environmental factors or cultural differences.
How Does a Learning Disability Affect Life?
A learning disability involves the foundational perceptual and thinking skills that allow us to operate in life. Thus, just as a sore or injured muscle will cause difficulty wherever that muscle is required for physical movement, so a learning disability will affect a person’s life wherever that skill is required.
For example, a person who has difficulty keeping things in a sequence may have trouble keeping in order words and letters in reading, spelling, and writing; keeping numbers in order in math; keeping track of a class schedule; completing long-range assignments, such as a term paper; and following directions. A memory deficit can cause problems with taking notes in class; remembering homework assignments, spelling or vocabulary; recalling information studied for tests; remembering basic math facts, phone numbers, addresses, locker combinations, people’s names, appointments, etc.
How Is a Learning Disability Diagnosed?
A psycho-educational battery of formal and informal tests is used to determine patterns of strength and weakness as compared to intellectual ability.
How Can Students With Learning Disabilities Be Helped?
There are two basic approaches to dealing with learning disabilities – accomodation and direct intervention.
NILD Educational Therapy® is a direct, language-based intervention for students with learning difficulties similar to occupational and speech therapies. Our focus is to strengthen the underlying causes of learning difficulties rather than simply treating the symptoms. Our therapy is individualized and aims the intervention just above the student’s level of functioning and raises expectations for performance. Students are trained to view themselves as competent, confident learners.