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Children Learning Disabilities: Fact and Fiction

Written By Franklin V on Monday, April 25, 2011 | 6:41 PM

Some misconceptions about common learning challenges such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
By Megan Driscoll
early detection of learning disorders

Struggling to Learn

Education researchers believe that 5-10 percent of kids ages 6-17 are affected by learning disabilities (LD). While experts don't know exactly what causes most learning disabilities, they do believe symptoms result from differences in brain structure or function.
Some common misconceptions about learning disabilities include:
  • Learning disabilities are like other forms of brain disorders. Learning disabilities are separate and distinct from problems caused by emotional dysfunction, mental retardation or hearing, visual or motor disabilities.
  • He's not smart. In fact, individuals with learning disabilities have 'normal' intelligence. They just suffer from a neurobiological dysfunction that makes it more difficult for them to learn.
  • She's faking it. Learning disabilities are a very real phenomenon, with a proven biological basis. Recent research has even found some genetic links for LD in families.
  • It's the student's background. Learning disabilities are not specific to any racial, cultural or socioeconomic category. Students from all backgrounds are equally susceptible.
Three of the most common challenges to learning that students face are dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD.


The most common learning disability is dyslexia, which accounts for 80 percent of U.S. students with LD. The condition tends to affect more boys than girls.
In a nutshell, dyslexia is a language problem that makes it difficult for students to read. The trouble is not with vision; it is the brain that struggles to parse the sounds that make up words. People with dyslexia have a hard time writing or thinking about the sounds in a word or breaking a word down into its component parts. As a result, translating thought to language (writing) and language to thought (listening or reading) presents a significant challenge.
Early diagnosis is important for dyslexia; without intervention, students can fall further and further behind in the classroom. Kids with untreated dyslexia often struggle with their work and become frustrated at school. Many also suffer from low self-esteem and are more prone to misbehavior. There are many alternative ways to teach reading to dyslexic students, however, so early intervention can lead to a relatively normal school life.


'Dyscalculia' is an umbrella term used to refer to a wide range of math disabilities. Although less well known than dyslexia, dyscalculia affects a significant number of children.
There are two main types of dyscalculia. Some individuals have visual-spatial problems, making it difficult for the brain to process what the eye sees. These people may have a hard time visualizing patterns or parts of math problems. Others struggle with processing language; in effect, the brain doesn't fully understand what the ear hears. Those who are affected by this condition struggle to grasp math vocabulary, which can result in challenges developing mathematical skills.
If dyscalculia goes undiagnosed, it can lead to lifelong frustration with math. But when educators are able to identify it, they can use alternative methods for teaching math that allow people with dyscalculia make progress.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, isn't technically a learning disability. It is, though, very common in students with LD and can cause plenty of challenges at school on its own.
Referred to by some as attention deficit disorder (ADD), ADHD is a brain condition that makes it difficult for individuals to stay focused and/or in control of behavior. While it is normal for all students to be inattentive, impulsive or hyperactive at times, these issues are more common and severe in individuals with ADHD.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is typically treated with a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. While some students with ADHD require special education to help keep them on track, others are able to function in a normal classroom once their symptoms are under control.
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