If you have a learning disability, your brain operates a bit differently. Learning disabilities occur “when someone has an impairment in learning or processing new information or skills,” Ami Baxi, MD, psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital, tells Health. This can lead to difficulty with language, speech, reading, writing, or math.
Defining a learning disability is important—as is understanding what a learning disability isn’t.
A learning disability, or a learning disorder, is not associated with low intelligence or cognitive abilities, Sabrina Romanoff, clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, tells Health. Nor is linked to a negative home or school environment, she adds. Instead, learning disabilities can be hereditary, or they may be brought on or exacerbated by psychological or physical trauma, environmental exposure (think: lead paint), or prenatal risks, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Learning disabilities are often diagnosed in childhood, but not always, Romanoff says. Sometimes the disability is mild and goes unnoticed by parents or teachers. Other times it’s mistaken for a lack of motivation or work ethic. In some cases it isn’t diagnosed because kids grow adept at adapting, compensating, and seeking out situations to suit their strengths, Romanoff says.
Without a diagnosis, Romanoff notes, people will lack “answers as to why they have difficulties in certain areas academically or in their daily lives as they pertain to their relationships or general functioning.” That’s unfortunate, since there are ways to overcome the differences in how people with learning disorders organize and manage information, she says.
Here’s a look at some of the most common learning disorders, some of which you’ve likely heard of and others that don’t get as much attention.
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This learning disability “impairs reading and spelling ability,” Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Connecticut with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, tells Health. Estimates vary, but as many as 20% of people may have dyslexia, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, which notes that it’s the most common neurocognitive disorder.
People with dyslexia struggle to read “because they have problems identifying speech sounds and learning how these relate to letters and words (known as decoding),” Schiff says. As adults, people with dyslexia will tend to avoid reading-related activities, she says. “They may also have trouble understanding jokes or expressions like idioms—where they cannot derive the meaning from the specific words used.”
For people with dyscalculia, all sorts of math-related skills—number sense, memorizing arithmetic facts, and accurate calculations—are impaired, Romanoff says.
“Dyscalculia generally refers to problems acquiring basic math skills, but not to problems with reasoning,” Romanoff says.
Tasks that require working with numbers will take longer for people with this learning disorder, Dr. Baxi says. From calculating the tip to writing down someone’s digits, numbers and math-related tasks are ever-present in life, and adults with this disorder may see the impact in many areas of life.
A 2019 study estimates that between 3-7% of people have dyscalculia.
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People with this writing disability have impaired writing ability and fine motor skills, Schiff says. They find it difficult to organize letters, numbers, or words on page or other defined space, she says.
Anything letter-related is a struggle for people with dysgraphia, Dr. Baxi says. Poor handwriting is common for people with this learning disorder, she notes.
“Dysgraphia in adults manifests as difficulties with syntax, grammar, comprehension, and being able to generally put one’s thoughts on paper,” Schiff says.
Other learning conditions to know
Some conditions are not classified as learning disorders or aren’t formally recognized in the DSM-V, the diagnostic guide used by mental health professionals. But they are still worth noting, since they may overlap or come up frequently for people with learning disorders.
Nonverbal learning disorders
With this kind of disorder, visual-spatial and visual-motor skills are affected, according to the Mayo Clinic. Nonverbal learning disorders (NLVD) can affect social skills and play out as a struggle to decode body language and understand humor, Schiff says.
“Non-verbal learning disabilities are not considered learning disabilities. They are often signs of other disorders,” Dr. Baxi notes. While NLVD isn’t officially recognized, this cluster of symptoms is “recognized by neuropsychologists and in educational settings when it presents itself,” Schiff says.
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Rather than being classified as a learning disability, dyspraxia is known as a developmental coordination disorder, Schiff says. It “affects movement, physical coordination, and balance [and is] characterized by difficulty with muscle control,” she notes.
All sorts of daily activities—like getting dressed or driving a car—become difficult as a result, Schiff notes. It can also affect writing and speech, and other learning-related movements, she says.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
“There is a misconception that the term learning disabilities is interchangeable with other disorders,” Schiff says, noting that ADHD is not a learning disability.
That said, it’s not uncommon for children with ADHD to also have a learning disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And certainly having ADHD can affect someone’s learning, since focus is so important to taking in information. Schiff points out one big difference between ADHD and a learning disorder: “ADHD can be treated with medication, a learning disability cannot.”
Auditory and visual processing disorders
With these types of disorders, a person has “difficulty receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses, despite normal hearing and vision,” Schiff explains.
For instance, someone with an auditory processing disorder has trouble hearing—but there’s nothing wrong with the person’s ear. Instead, this occurs because brain doesn’t process and “hear” sounds, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital. This can affect learning in many ways. Following spoken directions or listening to someone speak for a period of time are difficult. That said, it is not considered a learning disorder, according to the Nemours Foundation.
Similarly, with a visual processing disorder, the hold-up occurs in the brain, not someone’s eyes. This disorder “makes it difficult to interpret visual information, such as telling the difference between two shapes,” Schiff says.
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What to do if you suspect a learning disability
If you think your child might have a learning disability, early intervention is crucial, according to the Mayo Clinic. Talk to your pediatrician or your child’s teachers about getting an evaluation. Depending on the disability, extra help at school, classroom accommodations, and some forms of therapy can be helpful.
If you suspect you might have an undiagnosed learning disability, consult a professional who is qualified to evaluate and diagnose you. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, community mental health centers, a psychologist or psychological clinic, or university-affiliated hospitals and clinics can assess you or help you find the right resource for testing.
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