Identifying learning disabilities in children is often a complex task. A learning disability is not a set group of symptoms or signs. There is no specific age by which a learning disability will usually become apparent. While learning disabilities are usually diagnosed during the elementary school years, learning disabilities can develop much earlier or later, or go undetected for years. The first step in knowing if your child has a learning disability is understanding what a learning disability is.
What Is a Learning Disability?
There is considerable debate about the actual definition of a learning disability. The classic definition mandated for use by all school systems in the United States was created by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The definition also includes such conditions as perceptual hardships, brain injury, dyslexia and developmental apraxia. It is important to note that this definition has changed over the years and has been criticized as being too broad, focused only on academic performance, and it potentially leads to over-identification. For a glossary of terms related to learning disabilities, visitIDEA. Additionally, you can find information about services available to children with learning disabilities, as well as interpretations of the IDEA definition, in the article “What Are Learning Disabilities?” on the National Parent Information Network web site.
What a Learning Disability Is Not
It may help to understand what is not included in the definition of a learning disability. A learning problem caused by the following conditions is not considered a learning disability:
- visual impairment
- hearing impairment
- motor disabilities
- mentally challenged (retardation)
- behavioral or emotional disorders
- environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages
Beyond Definitions: Characteristics of Learning Disabilities
Children who have difficulty learning will often express recognizable characteristics when they begin to participate in instructional activities. However, your child may only be having trouble learning in one of area. For example, learning to read may be difficult for your child, whereas learning to add is very easy. If you think your child is having trouble in any of the following areas, read the next section on identification, diagnosis and evaluation of a learning disability.
The following list of common processes affected by learning disabilities is adapted from the book Keys to Parenting a Child with a Learning Disability by B.E. McNamara and F.J. McNamara. Potential psychological processes affected by learning disabilities include:
- Fine and Gross Motor Skill Problems (Fine: difficulty using fork, spoon, playing or handling blocks, coloring or copying shapes and objects, poor or illegible handwriting. Gross: coordination problems, clumsiness, difficulty in eye-hand coordination)
- Perceptual Deficits (trouble differentiating between letters that look alike or words that are similar; for example, b for d, or saw for was; difficulty understanding what someone is speaking about when there is a lot of noise in the room)
- Attention Deficits (difficulty concentrating on a task, prioritizing information, excessive hyperactivity, impulsiveness, highly easily distracted; require little sleep, constantly in motion)
- Memory Disabilities (difficulty with short term or long term memory, repeatedly forgetting certain task or item)
- Language Disorders (difficulty with the reception, processing and expression of language; for example, difficulty understanding specific words, sounds, or sentences; dysnomia, or difficulty choosing correct words, grammar, or syntax; exceptionally quiet and non-expressive especially when directly questioned)
- Social Perception Disorders(difficulty understanding social appropriateness or constraints of a situation. For example, saying inappropriate things, saying things not usual for child of similar age)
Additional information on characteristics of learning disabilities can be found at LD Online.
Identification, Evaluation and Diagnosis of Learning Disabilities
Despite all of the characteristics that a child with a learning disability may exhibit, it still may be difficult to know if your child is actually learning disabled. The best way to find out is to have your child evaluated. Arranging for an assessment can be done through your child’s school at no charge. You can also arrange to have your child assessed by an outside specialist which, if arranged through your school system, your child’s school is obligated to pay for.