Approximately 10 percent of American school-age children suffer from a learning disability (LD) and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control. About 4 percent of children have both. But for many kids, these disorders go undetected despite their ongoing struggles with school work and behavior issues that often accompany these disorders.
Often, parents don’t suspect learning disabilities because they associate it with low IQ. But LDs affect children of all intelligence levels and has nothing to do with IQ. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for a child with a learning disability to excel in one or multiple subjects, while struggling in another. Also, kids with LDs or ADHD may do well under certain conditions, yet in other situations, they have great difficulty. Depending on the LD and severity of it, a child might struggle in all areas.
Forms of learning disabilities
There are multiple forms of LDs. Some pose input problems, which means a child struggles with either sound or visual input. What happens is the information isn’t processed correctly or gets stored incorrectly in the brain. This can pose problems with the retrieval of information, as well as short- or long-term memory.
An LD can also cause output problems. This can sometimes be seen in motor skills such as handwriting difficulties. Another common problem is verbal output. This is usually evident in kids who have trouble organizing their thoughts either in writing or orally. Punctuation, grammar and spelling may also suffer as a result.
Dyscalculia is a math learning disability. With this disorder, kids might have difficulty learning to tell time, counting money or counting in general, learning math facts, calculating, understanding measurement or performing mental math.
Dyslexia is a reading disability, although the symptoms are not exclusive to reading. Children with this disorder may have difficulty with spelling, vocabulary or comprehension. They may read slowly, have trouble learning left from right or have organizational problems with both written and spoken language.
Dysgraphia is a writing disability. Poor handwriting and often an awkward style of holding a pencil or even contorting the body while writing are hallmarks. A child may also have trouble drawing lines. With dysgraphia, kids can often better express their understanding of the material through speech than in writing.
Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) is a problem with input. It isn’t a hearing problem. Instead, the brain has difficulty processing sounds. As a result, kids with APD can be distracted by loud noise or struggle to follow conversations. This can be especially problematic when there’s a lot of background noise, which makes it difficult to distinguish sounds.
Visual Processing Disorder (VPD) is also a problem with input. VPD isn’t a vision problem. It’s actually a problem with the brain processing what the eyes see. It can result in a child bumping into things or being unable to distinguish the shapes they see. It can also pose difficulty in identifying letters or numbers or result in problems with visual sequencing, among other symptoms.
Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) is similar to Asperger Syndrome and shows up as difficulties with social skills. Academic problems are sometimes present as well. But often, these don’t show up until kids reach higher grade levels. Those with NLD may be afraid of new situations, struggle to make friends, lack common sense and experience social withdrawal. Academic problems can include reading comprehension and working out math story problems.
ADHD is marked by attention problems and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. Girls often have only attention issues, while boys are more commonly impulsive or hyperactive. Symptoms can include difficulty staying on task or paying attention. Yet, they often hyperfocus on stimulating activity. Children with ADHD may fidget or have trouble staying seated, interrupt and act without thinking.
The symptoms listed above for each of the LDs aren’t exhaustive. You can learn more about symptoms by visiting the website of the Learning Disabilities Association of America at ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/
What to do if you suspect your child has an LD or ADHD
The first step is to talk with your child’s teacher and find out what the teacher has observed. Then speak to the school principal. Public schools are required by law to provide an assessment. This should include an IQ test, assessments of math, reading and writing and testing of processing skills. If your child is in a private school and it doesn’t offer this service, you can request it through your public school district.
Once your child has received a diagnosis, your school psychologist should be able to recommend and help you set up services or accommodations for your kid. Depending on the specific learning disability, your child may qualify for special education services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or accommodations through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Keep in mind, you are your child’s best advocate. So read books and articles on your child’s LD and learn how you and your school can help. Talk to your kid’s teacher about additional ways the teacher can assist your child. Most teachers are eager to help, although depending on the student-teacher ratio and the school’s resources, it’s sometimes challenging for teachers to do as much as they’d like. There are likely other kids in their classroom with special needs as well. If you feel your child isn’t getting the help he or she needs, talk to the school administrator.