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Learning Disability

Learning Disability

In simple terms, Learning Disability affects an individual’s ability to either interpret what he/she sees and hears or the ability to link information from different parts of the brain. These limitations can show up in many ways:

  • Specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination or attention span.

  • Difficulties extend to schoolwork, and can impede with education (learning to read, write, or do math).

Defining Learning Disability

Interestingly, there is no clear and widely-accepted definition of "learning disabilities." Because of the multi-disciplinary nature of the field, there is an on-going debate on the issue of definition, and there are, at present, at least 12 definitions that appear in the professional literature. However, these disparate definitions do agree on certain factors:

  • The learning disabled have difficulties with academic achievement and progress; discrepancies exist between a person’s potential for learning and what he actually learns.

  • The learning disabled show an uneven pattern of development (language development, physical development, and academic development).

  • Learning problems are not due to environmental disadvantage.

  • Learning problems are not due to mental retardation or emotional disturbance.

Most professionals utilise a "definition of exclusion" when defining an LD population. That is, the learning disabled child is one who is not functioning well in school despite the fact that the child is:

  • Not mentally retarded.

  • Not emotionally disturbed.

  • Not impaired in his modalities (e.g. blind, deaf).

  • Has had an opportunity to learn not hindered by excessive absences, poor teaching, frequent family moves etc.

Dr Samuel Kirk coined the term "learning disability" in 1962. It is often referred to as the "hidden handicap" because there is no outward appearance of the disability—children with learning disabilities do not appear to be different from their normal peers

Types of LD

  • Developmental speech and language disorders

  • Academic skills disorders: Reading (Dyslexia), Writing (Dysgraphia), Math (Dyscalculia).

  • “Other”: includes certain disorders not covered by the above terms.

Causes of LD

At present, little is known about the causes of learning disabilities. However, some general observations can be made:

  • Some children develop and mature at a slower rate than others in the same age-group. As a result, they may not be able to do the expected school work. This kind of learning disability is called "maturational lag."

  • Some children with normal vision and hearing may misinterpret everyday sights and sounds because of some unexplained disorder of the nervous system.

  • Injuries before birth or in early childhood may account for some later learning problems.

  • Children born prematurely and children who had medical problems soon after birth sometimes have learning disabilities.

  • Learning disabilities tend to run in families; so, some learning disabilities may be inherited.

  • Learning disabilities are more common in boys than girls, possibly because boys tend to mature more slowly.

  • Some learning disabilities appear to be linked to the irregular spelling, pronunciation, and structure of the English language. The incidence of learning disabilities is lower in Spanish or Italian-speaking countries.

Early Warning Signs

Early warning signs of LD include

  • Irregular birth history

  • Delayed developmental milestones

  • Under/poor development of spoken language

  • Repeated failure in basic academic skill areas

  • Deficits in reading, writing, math, perception, memory, fine motor skills

  • Slow in completing work/gives up easily

  • Distracted, short working span


Children with learning disabilities exhibit a wide range of symptoms. These include problems with reading, mathematics, comprehension, writing, spoken language, or reasoning abilities, Hyperactivity, inattention, and perceptual co-ordination may also be associated with learning disabilities but are not learning disabilities themselves. The primary characteristic of a leaning disability is a significant difference between a child’s achievement in some areas and his or her overall intelligence.

Typically, learning disabilities affect five general areas:

  • Spoken Language: delays, disorders, and deviations in listening and speaking.

  • Written Language: difficulties with reading, writing, and spelling.

  • Arithmetic: difficulty in performing arithmetic operations or in understanding basic concepts.

  • Reasoning: difficulty in organising and integrating thoughts.

  • Memory: difficulty in remembering information and instructions.

Other symptoms include those listed below. However, when considering these symptoms, it is important to remain mindful of the following:

  • No one will have all these symptoms.

  • Among LD populations, some symptoms are more common than others.

  • All people have at least two or three of these problems to some degree.

  • The number of symptoms seen in a particular child does not give an indication as to whether the disability is mild or severe. It is important to consider if the behaviours are chronic and appear in clusters.

Among the symptoms commonly related to learning disabilities are:

  • Poor performance in group tests.

  • Difficulty in discriminating size, shapes, and colour.

  • Difficulty with temporal (time) concepts.

  • Distorted concepts of body image.

  • Reversals in writing and reading.

  • General awkwardness.

  • Poor visual-motor co-ordination.

  • Hyperactivity.

  • Difficulty in copying accurately from a model.

  • Slowness in completing work.

  • Poor organisational skills.

  • Easily confused by instructions.

  • Difficulty with abstract reasoning and/or problem-solving.

  • Disorganised thinking.

  • Often obsesses on one topic or idea.

  • Poor short- or long-term memory.

  • Impulsive behaviour; lack of reflective thought prior to action.

  • Low tolerance or frustration.

  • Excessive movement during sleep.

  • Poor peer relationships.

  • Overly excitable during group play.

  • Poor social judgement.

  • Inappropriate, unselective, and, often, excessive display of affection.

  • Lags in development milestones (e.g. motor, language).

  • Behaviour often inappropriate for situation.

  • Failure to see consequences for his/her actions.

  • Overly gullible; easily led by peers.

  • Excessive variation in mood and responsiveness.

  • Poor adjustment to environmental changes.

  • Overly distractible; difficulty in concentrating.

  • Difficulty in taking decisions.

  • Lack of hand preference or mixed dominance.

  • Difficulty with tasks requiring sequencing.

Management of Learning Disorder

You, as a parent or caregiver may notice the problem first. A teacher may complain of slow work, short attention span or poor progress in some area of study (such as inability to remember spellings, confusion in recognition of letters, problems with reading etc.). A medical professional may point out the problem to you.

Once the observation has been made, monitor the child. All children do not progress or learn at the same pace. But there are certain minimum skills that most children without disabilities are able to acquire. The important thing is not to be harsh with the child or give the child the feeling that he or she is inferior. The care giver needs to sit with a special educator and discuss how best to help the child.

The first step is to get the child/person assessed.

Based on the assessment an Interdisciplinary approach is taken involving:

    -Classroom management

    -Educational Therapy

    -Other supportive therapy

Assessment for LD

In some countries there are structured methods and procedures/protocols to assess the level of disability.

In a multicultural and multilayered society where learning opportunities, teaching tools and backgrounds can differ vastly, as in India, much depends on the skill of the team that provides the assessment. Some of the trained people who may have to be met are: school teacher, special educator, language/speech pathologist, psychologist and a medical professional.

Primary areas of assessment are:

    – Intelligence, Language, Academic skills, Information processing skills, Attention, Behaviour and social development

School records, meetings with teachers, parents, siblings can provide data for assessment. Personal assessment of the child is done. There are some tests and questionnaires that may need to be completed by the subject/caregiver. (But no test is fool proof or above controversy). The data gathered has to be interpreted with the environment and context in mind.

Based on the interpretation, recommendations are made.

When you suspect Learning disability, approach your doctor or a trained special educator on how to get the best help for the child.

The role of your Doctor

A doctor is expected to

  • Recognise the warning signs

  • Record parent’s observations

  • Get vision and hearing checked

  • Guide for assessment

  • Refer the child to an appropriate specialist

  • Interpret Reports & guide for therapy

  • Coordinate treatment with interdisciplinary team members

Therapy for LD

    – Informal Assessment - conducted by a qualified special educator

    – IEP - an Individualised Education Plan arrived at by the Special Educator, together with Assessment personnel, utilising all the information collected from the Formal and Informal assessments.

    – Therapy - this consists of the special educator executing the goals (long terms and short term) as defined in each IEP, using specific techniques.

    – Re-evaluation - an important process in the feedback loop in order to periodically assess the progress of the child.

Frequently Asked Questions about LD

Can Learning Disabilities Be Outgrown Or Cured?

Can A Child With Learning Disability Continue In A Normal School?

Will He/She Be Able To Go To College?

Is LD Related To Mental Retardation?

Can Learning Disabilities Be Outgrown Or Cured?

Even though most people do not outgrow their brain dysfunction, people do learn to adapt and live fulfilling lives. This can be done more by developing personal strengths rather than being cured. Alternative ways of learning have to be found so that the individual talents may be enjoyed.

Even though a learning disability doesn’t disappear, given the right types of educational experiences, people with LD have shown a remarkable ability to learn. The brain’s flexibility to learn new skills is, probably, greatest in young children and may diminish somewhat after puberty. This is why early intervention is so important. Nevertheless, we retain the ability to learn throughout our lives.

Even though LD can’t be cured, there is still cause for hope. As certain learning problems reflect delayed development, many children do, eventually, catch up.

For children with an expressive language disorder, most children do learn to speak eventually. For people with dyslexia, the outlook is mixed. However, an appropriate remedial programme can greatly help.

With age and appropriate help from parents, children with ADHD become better able to suppress their hyperactivity and to channel it into more socially acceptable behaviours. Even adult dyslexics can benefit from appropriate learning programmes.

Can A Child With Learning Disability Continue In A Normal School?

An LD child with an average IQ can continue in the normal school. He will require constant remedial education, certain concessions, and modification in the classroom and during evaluations. The child and his family will require the support of a counsellor through the entire period for the purpose of managing stressful situations.

Will He/She Be Able To Go To College?

After schooling, the child may take up any of the available streams of education. However, it is best at this stage that the child take up an educational programme suited to his ability, past achievement, and interest. This is the best guide to sustain interest and progress in the chosen programme.

Is LD Related To MR?

Learning disabilities are not due to mental retardation. However, children who are mentally challenged may also have specific learning disabilities, which are not due to a below-average ability or intelligence.


This material has been sourced from Dr Smita Desai, Ph D ( Psychology), Special Educator and Founder of Drishti, Mumbai. More about Dr Smita Desai.

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