Encyclopedia Home / L / Learning Disabilities - HealthCentral Encyclopedia

Learning Disabilities

  • Definition

    The terms learning disability, dyslexia, reading disability, and perceptual problems are frequently used in place of one other by the lay public.

    Learning disability is a more general term and refers to a difficulty in any aspect of learning, rather than merely the inability to read (dyslexia specifically).


    Learning disabilities are generally divided into two groups: Primary (inherited) and Secondary (caused by a physical factor that interferes with learning as a result of a brain injury.)

    The most common learning disabilities fall into five, general categories:

    1. Dyslexia is a disorder in which there is difficulty understanding written words.

    2. Dysgraphia involves difficulty in writing words or writing within a defined space.

    3. Auditory and Visual Processing Disorders involve sensory proccessing disabilities within the brain, resulting in difficulty understanding language.

    4. Dyscalculia involves an inability to understand and perform mathmetical processes, especially simple calculations.

    5. Visuo-spacial motor and memory disorders involve a wide variety of non-verbal learning and memory functions including processing, evaluating and organizing perceived data.


    The exact cause of learning disabilities is unclear. They appear to be due to disorders or developmental delays involving the brain. Inherited factors may play a part. The exact neurochemical difficulties within the brain are not known and the subject of ongoing, scientific research.

    Although poor vision, jerky eye movements, misaligned or crossed eyes, and hand-coordination have at times been claimed to be the cause of letter reversals or reading disabilities, there is little to no scientific evidence to support this belief.

    Stated simply, the eyes function as a camera. After the eyes "take the picture," it is sent to the brain by the optic nerves. The eyes do not comprehend reading any more than a camera interprets a picture. Until the picture from the camera is developed, it has no meaning. Similarly, until the brain interprets or "perceives" the pictures sent by the eyes, there is no understanding. With processing disorders involving what is heard, think of the ears in a similar fashion.

    This perceptive ability by the brain is the key to the child's ability to read or hear and understand what is presented in the learning environment. . Perception is quite different from vision and sight. It is the ability of the brain to recognize, use, and interpret visual images by relating them to previous experiences. In the past, reading problems have been blamed on the eyes though children with a learning disability have no greater incidence of eye problems than the rest of the population.

    Some learning disorders, such as dysgraphia and dyscalculia, on the other hand, are primarily disorders within the brain leading to an inability to process internally and coherently and correctly present materials to the environment, rather than involving perceptual difficulties.


    If parents suspect that their child has a learning disability, they should first contact the child's teacher or principal, and if necessary, the local or state Director of Special Education. Public law requires the school to evaluate any child who is thought to have a learning disability. Evaluations are normally performed using standardized tests, usually by a trained psychologist or a Pediatrician with a specialty in child development.

    As soon as a learning disability is diagnosed, a child should be examined by a team of medical doctors, psychologists and educators to determine if physical or mental problems are the cause of the condition.

    It may be difficult to absolutely diagnose a learning disability before a child reaches the age of six or seven. However, once a diagnosis is made, educational assistance is needed promptly.


    Specific educational assistance is the best treatment for individuals with learning disabilities. Remedial training in areas where a disabled child is weakest is best managed by trained teachers, reading specialists, or tutors in special classes or schools. The law requires the child’s school to develop Individual Education Plans for all children with learning disabilities, so as to develop a comprehensive approach for each child. Parents are encouraged to participate in the process.

    Gentle understanding, emotional support, and opportunities for the child to experience success in other non-reading activities should be encouraged. Allowing a child to "burn-off" tensions and frustrations through sports or artistic activities can be most helpful.

    Learning disabilities may be complicated problems. Scientific evidence demonstrates that simple solutions such as diet, mega-vitamins, sugar restriction, eye exercises, or visual training do not improve reading skills. Unfortunately, relying solely on such treatment may actually harm the child by delaying proper educational assistance.


    Are there any tests to help evaluate my child?

    Does the school system supply the team to examine the child?

    As the team tests and evaluates the child, will they explain the results?

    Is there any cost?

    What learning program can help my child's learning disabilities?

    How soon can it be started?

    How will this affect my child's self-esteem?

    What can be done at home to help the situation?