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learning disability

Alternative Names
LD, academic disorders, learning disorder

When a person has a learning disability, he or she is unable to obtain or express knowledge appropriately. Learning disabilities may also involve mental processes used in understanding or using written or spoken language.

What is going on in the body?
It is generally believed that the brain functions differently in a person with a learning disability. A person with a learning disability has average to above-average intelligence when measured by standardised testing. However, the person's reading, maths, or written expression is much lower than expected for age, schooling, and environment. Learning disorders may affect a person's ability to read, write, spell, speak, or perform maths problems.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Learning disability is a broad term that includes many types of disorders. A person with a learning disability may have trouble with:
  • motor control
  • attention
  • language
  • hearing
  • vision
  • orientation to time and space
  • memory
Symptoms vary, depending upon the type of learning disability. The person may:
  • have low self esteem
  • be depressed
  • have social problems
  • drop out of school
  • have attention deficit disorder
  • have conduct disorder
  • have poor memory
  • be impulsive, restless, or distractible
  • be unable to read, listen, or organise thoughts
  • have a lot of problems speaking, writing, spelling, or doing maths
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
The exact causes of a learning disability are unknown. The way a person's brain works may cause learning disabilities. Certain biological, genetic, or environmental factors are linked with learning disabilities. Boys are affected 4 to 5 times more than girls. Learning disabilities can run in families. The following factors may contribute to the cause of learning disability: What can be done to prevent the condition?
While there is no known way to prevent all learning disabilities, it is clear that a woman who has good antenatal care gives her child a good start. It is important to avoid pregnancy risk factors such as alcohol or drugs. Also, eating a healthy diet, especially during infancy and early childhood, can help minimise learning disabilities.

How is the condition diagnosed?
A complete evaluation is done to determine if a child has a learning disability. The evaluation includes testing, teacher input, parental input, and observing the child.

Tests are done to see if the child's learning problems are due to vision impairments, hearing impairments, allergies, or any other medical issues. A child's mental capacity, school performance, eyesight, hearing, emotional status, and general neurological function may be checked. Often several different types of professionals will assess the child. These may include an audiologist, psychologist, doctor, and a speech and language pathologist.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
If a child with an learning disability is not effectively treated, academic, social, and interpersonal problems are likely to develop. Children who are not doing well in school are more likely to have low self-esteem and lose motivation. They may eventually withdraw from the demands of the people around them.

Children with untreated learning disabilities are at a much higher risk for dropping out of school. Socially, they are often teased and rejected, causing more problems with self-esteem. If left untreated, learning disabilities may cause a lifetime of problems.

What are the risks to others?
Learning disabilities are not contagious. However, the learning disability may be genetic and can be passed on to offspring.

What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatment is aimed at helping the child learn ways to lessen the effects of the learning disability. The child needs to learn how to learn. Specific treatments are available with certain disorders.

After the correct learning disorder is diagnosed, the special education services at the child's school will design an individualised educational plan, called an IEP. This will specify who and what services will be provided to the child.

The child may need counselling in order to overcome his or her self-esteem problems. He or she needs to feel supported and accepted. Counselling will help the child understand the problem and teach him or her ways to cope.

The child's home life needs to support his or her educational goals. An organised, quiet study area is needed. A balance between diet, rest, play, and study should be maintained. Solid discipline coupled with nurturing and consistent, fair expectations are very important for children with learning disorders.

Sometimes medications may be suggested, depending on the type of the learning disability. Medication can be effective in minimising hyperactivity, distractibility, or poor attention span.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects depend on the medications used, but may include drowsiness and allergic reactions.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
Depending on the type of learning disability, treatment may be lifelong, but in varying degrees. A caregiver may need to carefully watch the child to see if more treatment or a different type of treatment is needed.

How is the condition monitored?
Monitoring a learning disability may also be lifelong. Treatment may need to be adjusted based on a person's needs.

Author: Ann Reyes, Ph.D.
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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