How To Tell If A Child Has A Learning Disability

True or false:

• Learning disabilities can be caused by too much screen time.

• Learning disabilities can be caused by a poor diet.

• Learning disabilities can be caused by childhood vaccinations.

• Learning disabilities are related to your IQ.

• Learning disabilities can be treated by corrective eyewear.

Answer: They are all false. However, in a just-released survey of nearly 2000 adults by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), one quarter to one half of those surveyed believed the above are true. Clearly, Americans have a lot to learn about learning disabilities, which affect approximately 2.4 children in this country. A whole lot of well-known adults have them, including Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Cruise, Jay Leno, Liv Tyler, Anderson Cooper, Britney Spears, Orlando Bloom and Joss Stone, among others.

To help clear up some of the confusion, and make sure parents know the real signs of a learning disability, I asked Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD, Director of LD resources and essential information at the NCLD, to answer some q’s.

At what age are learning disabilities typically diagnosed?

Learning disabilities are most often identified in children during the elementary or middle school years, but early warning signs can be identified as early as kindergarten. Because there is no single ‘typical’ LD profile, the kinds of struggles noticed by parents and educators and the ways that children react to their school frustrations will vary. Some withdraw socially, some act out; some worry about whether they are ‘stupid,’ others know that they are smart but don’t know how to get past their specific challenges in critical areas such as reading, writing, spelling, math and general organization. Complicating the process of recognizing LD is the fact that child development is a moving target, and that everyone can be expected to struggle with learning at some point in time for reasons that are completely “normal.”

For specific guidelines in determining the ages and stages of LD and how features of LD might present across different domains of development and learning, check out the website and the NCLD Interactive LD Checklist (available in both English and Spanish).

What are the most common learning disabilities?

The vast majority of individuals with LD struggle in the area of reading. Researchers estimate that as many as 80% or more of people with LD will have primary weaknesses in skills such as sounding out words, reading accurately and fluidly, understanding what is read, retaining information from reading, and in the closely connect areas of spelling and writing. Dyslexia is the clinical name most often associated with specific learning disabilities in reading, and dyscalculia is the name given for LD in math. Many people with LD also struggle with memory and with learning that is heavily dependent upon certain types of information processing. Read more about the different types of LD and about related information processing weakness and executive function challenges on the website.

What are typical causes of learning disabilities? 

We don’t yet have the science to say what “causes” learning disabilities. We know that they are neurological (brain-based) disorders and that they often run in families. We know that they co-occur with disorders of attention (ADD and ADHD) in pretty high numbers (some clinicians say as high as 35% or higher) and that they are life long, changing in how they impact learning but never going away. (If someone tells you that people can outgrow their learning disability, don’t believe it!). LD may result from early neurological events during the prenatal period, from material malnutrition or from some other biological or medical cause. It is well documented that brains of people with LD can have some structural difference (which can be observed through sophistical neuro-imaging techniques) and functional difference (the machinery works fine, but the cognitive programs used to engage in thinking and learning are inefficient. Just remember: people with LD struggle to learn not because they are lazy and not because they have diminished capacity. They are smart, creative and competent thinkers who are “wired” for learning in unexpected ways.

What are the signs parents and even teachers might typically overlook?

One of the most telling signs of an underlying (and undiscoved) LD has to do with how a child feels about him or herself. Imagine what is like to wake up every day and have to look forward to hours of nonstop worry about whether you will be asked to read aloud in front of the class or asked to complete assignments that take so long that you will (once again) have to miss lunch, gym or a favorite elective. Self-doubt, anxiety about school performance and diminished excitement about learning and sharing with peers or even acting out  can be important signs that merit a closer look at whether LD is at play. And in young children, look for signs that vocabulary and skills like rhyming are slow to develop or perhaps a pattern of behavioral around reading what is unexpected. In some children, early risk for LD might look like their enjoying being read to but resisting when offered opportunities to play with books and explore how they work. For a fun and easy way to learn more about the foundational skills needed to help a child prepare for reading instruction, visit the Get Ready to Read! web site, take the free online screening with your child and download dozens of free, fun activities (in English and Spanish) that will get your child started on the road to success in school.

What’s the good word about prognosis for a learning disability? 

The good news is that LD is not a prescription for frustration and failure. Society is filled with stories of successful individuals—business leaders, actors, politicians, scientists, educators, people from all walks of life who understand the challenges their LD has placed before them and who, just like everyone else, have found ways to circumvent their weaknesses, tap their interests and celebrate their strengths. Discover these  personal stories of young people and adults who are proof that people with LD can hope, learn and succeed.


Read more from Ellen:

What’s it’s like to do a farm stay vacay

8 ways to make inclusion work for kids with special needs

Why you shouldn’t pity my child with cerebral palsy

Photo of little girl reading via Shutterstock

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