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Causes of Learning Disabilities

The objective of this article is to help parents, especially, with learning disabled children to understand how this may have happened to their child.

By: Susan Adams, M. Ed. 

Causes of Learning Disabilities

Summary: As a parent of a learning disabled child and also someone with graduate work in this area, I can attest to the fact that the guilt that goes with having children with some handicap is both enormous and useless. In fact, marriages with such children carry an 80% mortality rate. This happens when the parents deal with the problem separately and blame each other. This article seeks to clarify the nature of how learning disabilities arise.

Many factors can lead to learning disabilities. One possibility is heredity. A number of studies have shown that learning disabilities tend to be repetitive in families. The genetic factor seems especially high in specific or pure dyslexia–described this way because it can’t be explained by factors such as illness or neglect.

There also may be complications of pregnancy. Some studies have shown a relationship between learning disabilities and premature birth.

Sometimes there is a lag in nervous system development. In the case of any skill, development proceeds by steps. If you show a 3-year old a circle, he or she can usually draw one. However, most children have to be about 5 years old before they can draw a square and some children who are several years older can’t do it. Their inability suggests a slowness in the development of one or more neurological functions. Children who have trouble recognizing and producing shapes are likely to have trouble identifying letters and possibly numbers. This slowness in development is called “maturational lag”. It does not imply brain damage. This is a different concept from the term “minimal brain damage” which was used years ago to explain the problem when nothing organically could be found wrong but things weren’t working properly.

Some children with learning disabilities do have neurological deficits such as abnormal reflexes and trouble with eye convergence. For these children the learning disabilities tend to be more severe.

On a personal note, I noticed immediately when they brought my daughter to me in the hospital that one eye turned in. One of the things that we know about children with handicaps is that the disabilities are usually multiple. Given my background, I asked immediately about the possibility of learning problems and of course was told that it was too early to know. We watched Patty very carefully–the developmental lags began to appear and by age three we had a diagnosis. We placed her in the university system for tutoring and followed along through school. Today, she has a responsible job with our local county, is married, and leads a normal life. The disabilities are still there but she has been taught how to compensate. One of the keys, as with so many things, is early detection.

Along with the concept of maturational lag goes the concept of slowness in the development of cerebral dominance, If one is to learn to read, there must be a firm association between an auditory symbol and a visual symbol–what something sounds like and what it looks like. In most children and adults, spoken language is better interpreted in the left hemisphere of the brain. This is generally the dominant side. Visual symbols, including printed language, are better recognized in the right hemisphere when first learned.

Therefore, if a child is to learn to read, the two hemispheres have to interact. In young children and children with a developmental lag, these two hemispheres barely communicate with each other so learning problems arise.

Sometimes during the learning -to-read process the task of interpreting visual symbols is actually transferred to the left hemisphere even though the recognition of such symbols that are unfamiliar continues to be handled most effectively on the right. This transfer helps, in most people, to establish the dominance on the left side of the brain. In cases of learning disability, such dominance may not yet have been clearly established.

Many children with learning disabilities tend to be deficient in selective attention but not all. There are medications for this such as Ritalin—and many others—best discussed with a doctor who specializes in this problem, once the diagnosis of “attention-deficit” is made. This is important to establish as many children who look inattentive–when they may just be bored–receive this diagnosis. Drugs that help this problem react very differently on normal brains and can make children who are not clinically hyperactive manic.

So, along with the remediation and any possible medication, parents must be a team, avoid blame of each other, use praise immediately after each success, and continue to remind the child of his assets and the idea that he is not stupid–he simply learns differently.

Causes of Learning Disabilities


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