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What are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities result from a variation in your child's central nervous sys­tem functioning. This does not mean that your youngster has "brain damage" or is mentally retarded, although in some cases, a previous head injury or brain infection might cause learning difficulties. In most instances, children are born with the tendency for learning problems; the cause is "invisible" and hard to pin down, and the affected children look and act like other children and are in other ways no different from them.

Learning disabilities tend to run in families. About 50 percent of these chil­dren have a parent, sibling, or extended family member with a similar diffi­culty, although in the past it was much more frequently misdiagnosed or mislabeled.

Learning disabilities can vary in severity, from mild to severe. They may af­fect a single learning task like spelling, or they can influence many of them, like reading, writing, and listening comprehension. In some children, their pres­ence may be very obvious even before school age; in others, they may become apparent later and then only in subtle ways. Parents may not even be aware that their child has a learning disability until his learning capabilities are chal­lenged and he is unable to keep up with classroom demands and expectations.

Learning disabilities can last a lifetime, becoming more or less obvious de­pending on the academic and other learning demands that the youngster faces. With help, however, they often do improve.

When a child does poorly in school or seems to lose his motivation to learn, he might be responding to other problems in his life. He might be experienc­ing problems with peers, or there may be family problems that he finds dis­tracting. As with learning disabilities themselves, social and emotional problems that mimic learning disabilities require immediate and appropriate help.

The Impact of Common Learning Disabilities

When learning disabilities occur, they generally affect three gen­eral skill areas:

  • academic skills, such as reading, writing, spelling, and arith­metic
  • language and speech skills, encompassing areas such as listen­ing, talking, and understanding
  • so-called motor-sensory integration skills, such as coordina­tion, balance, and writing

When problems exist in any of these areas, there is a breakdown in one or more stages of learning. For instance, the child may have difficulty taking in information through hearing or sight. Or he could have problems remembering the information he has heard or read. Finally, he may be unable to utilize this knowledge in a productive way.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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