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What Are Learning Disabilities?

By Trynia Kaufman, MS

Learning disabilities are challenges with reading, writing, and math. They’re caused by differences in the brain and other factors. And they can impact people at school, at work, and in everyday life.

People don’t outgrow most learning disabilities. But there are treatments, supports, and teaching approaches that can help people with a learning disability thrive. Lots of successful people have learning disabilities. They include celebrities and entrepreneurs.

Snapshot: What Learning Disabilities Are

What are learning disabilities? They’re lifelong challenges with reading, writing, and math. Between 5 and 15 percent of people have them. Some people struggle in only one of these areas. But it’s common to struggle in more than one.

Learning disabilities are caused by biological differences. Research has shown that brain structure and function is different in people who have them. Heredity also plays a role. Learning disabilities run in families.

Despite research, there are still many myths about learning and thinking differences, which include learning disabilities. A common myth is that they aren’t real, and that people are just being lazy.

Learning disabilities aren’t about laziness. They’re also not related to intelligence. People who have them have weaknesses in specific areas.

You may hear learning disabilities called learning disorders or specific learning disabilities. You may also hear terms that refer to a specific type of learning disability, like dyslexia or dyscalculia.

Dive Deeper

Learning Disability Signs and Symptoms

The signs depend on what the learning disability or area of difficulty is. Typically, they start showing up in childhood. But signs look different at various ages and in different people. And not everyone has the same level of difficulty.

You may also see signs that aren’t directly related to skills. People with learning disabilities are more likely to develop anxiety or low self-esteem. Kids may try to cover up their challenges by acting out at school or at home. And people of all ages may avoid tasks they struggle with.

There are other conditions that can impact how people learn and perform at school or at work. ADHD is a common one. But there are others that involve communication or motor skills. These conditions often co-occur with learning disabilities.

Possible Causes of Learning Disabilities

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes learning disabilities. But they do know that genes and brain differences play a role. Many studies have focused on dyslexia. But researchers are starting to look at other learning disabilities, too.

Genes and heredity: Learning disabilities run in families. People are 4 to 10 times as likely to have a learning disability if they have a parent or sibling with a learning disability. Researchers have found multiple genes that may play a role.

Brain development: Brain imaging studies have shown brain differences between people with and without learning disabilities. The differences have to do with how the brain is structured and how it functions in areas that are linked to learning skills.

How Learning Disabilities Are Diagnosed

The only way to know for sure if someone has a learning disability is through an evaluation. These can happen at school or privately.

There are a few types of professionals who can assess people for learning disabilities. These include school psychologists, clinical psychologists, and neuropsychologists.

An evaluation will look for specific strengths and challenges in reading, writing, and math skills. The evaluator will also assess other abilities that are important for learning. For example, many people with learning disabilities also have challenges with executive function.

It’s important to know there are teaching approaches and strategies that can help build these skills. Having a diagnosis (schools call it an identification) can lead to supports and services for kids at school. Adults with learning disabilities may get accommodations at work.

Having the right help and supports lets people with learning disabilities thrive in school, at work, and in their communities.

For educators: Learn about teaching strategies than can help students with learning disabilities.

For families: Learn how to request a school evaluation or a private evaluation for your child.

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  • Facebook
  • Twitter
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  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom