Our growing understanding of learning disabilities

As the body of research has grown over the years, so has our understanding of learning disabilities. A century ago, learning disabilities were shrugged off as signs of low intelligence or brain dysfunctions. Today, we see things more clearly and understand that not everyone learns and makes connections in the same way.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability means having a marked difficulty and lower function in taking in information (sensory data), processing it, or using it in creating the desired outputs despite average or above average intelligence.

Learning disabilities range from mild to severe and can show up at any time in life and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

  • oral language: listening, speaking, understanding
  • reading: decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension
  • written language: spelling and written expression
  • mathematics: computation, problem solving

Learning disabilities may co-exist with various conditions including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions. They may result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, but are not limited to:

  • language processing
  • phonological processing
  • visual spatial processing
  • processing speed
  • memory and attention
  • executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making)

Who has learning disabilities?

Organization estimates that 10-15 per cent of the Canadian population struggles with a learning disability and are found among all socio-economic, cultural and ethnic groups.

The way in which learning disabilities are expressed may vary over an individual’s lifetime, depending on the interaction between the demands of the environment and the individual’s strengths and needs. Learning disabilities are suggested by unexpected academic under-achievement or achievement, which is maintained only by unusually high levels of effort and support.

Learning disabilities may co-exist with other difficulties such as attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD).

We understand that learning disabilities stem from neurological disorders, as does ADHD. ADHD frequently accompanies learning disabilities. Present alone, it affects the ability to learn.

What is attention deficit disorder (ADHD/ADD)?

Attention deficit disorder is a condition which affects attention to tasks, activity level and impulse controls in both children and adults. Approximately 3-5 per cent of the Canadian population suffers from ADHD/ADD.

The behavioural symptoms of ADHD/ADD may include:

  • excessive physical activity, including fidgeting
  • impulsive actions, including rapid shifts from one activity to another and acting before thinking about consequences
  • considerable difficulty in attending to the task at hand
  • general disorganization and poor social skills

ADHD/ADD is usually present in children before the age of seven, but symptoms are often missed until the child begins school. Attention deficits can also be present without hyperactivity (ADD).

How is ADHD/ADD diagnosed?

Diagnosis of ADHD/ADD can be difficult. An individual may display various signs of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. Severity of symptoms may vary from day to day and even from hour to hour. Symptoms may range from an extremely mild pattern that is difficult to differentiate from the behaviour of a normally exuberant child, to pronounced deficits in behaviour. ADHD without hyperactivity is harder to diagnose as individuals do not exhibit the hyperactive symptoms, and are often quiet and withdrawn.

Information that is usually required by a medical doctor or other professional for the evaluation of ADHD/ADD includes: prenatal history, family history (genetic), early childhood development, duration of symptoms, educational assessment, behavioural activities checklist measures, family relations, educational environment, and possibly neurological assessment.

ADHD/ADD may be hard to differentiate from other problems the individual may be experiencing such as stress, anxiety, depression or abuse. The earlier the diagnosis, the sooner the treatment can begin.

Do learning disabilities disappear?

Learning disabilities often remain throughout an individual’s life. However, with appropriate assistance, people with learning disabilities can become productive and valued members of society.

Most people with learning disabilities can and do learn to function as independent adults. With help and intervention they can learn to understand their particular difficulty and develop strategies to compensate.

For success, individuals with learning disabilities require early identification and timely specialized assessments and interventions involving home, school, and community and workplace settings. The interventions need to be appropriate for each individual’s learning disability subtype and, at a minimum, include the provision of:

  • specific skill instruction
  • accommodations
  • compensatory strategies
  • self-advocacy skills