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What to Know About Learning Disabilities

Maybe your 2nd grade son seems flummoxed by basic math computation. Or perhaps your 3rd grade daughter refuses to read a book. That nagging little voice in your head wonders, "What's going on here?"

Experts say: Listen to that voice. "If your intuition tells you something is not right, you are probably right on the money," says Sheldon Horowitz, director of learning disabilities resources and essential information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

It can be scary to admit your child has a learning disability, in part because of the myths surrounding what experts call "LD." So let's explode the biggest of those myths—that "learning disability" is just another way of saying "stupid."

"Kids with LD are by definition of average or above-average intelligence," Horowitz says. An LD diagnosis means the child is smart enough to do the work—indeed may be highly intelligent—but has some issue that acts like a wall between his smarts and his ability to keep up with tasks and/or information.

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And it's possible he inherited the trait from you. "We know these things are genetically predisposed to happening in families," Horowitz says. "If either parent has LD or similar issues, I would absolutely keep an eye out."

The most common kind of LD is dyslexia, a disorder that scrambles the brain's ability to process language, and can impact reading, writing, spelling and even speaking. Other types of LDs (as listed at the National Center for Learning Disabilities website) are math processing disorders, known as dyscalculia, and writing-processing disorders, known as dysgraphia. What do those terms mean in daily life? Here are some clues to look for in your school-aged child, from NCLD:

DYSLEXIA

  • Poor speller
  • Poor handwriting, or holds the pencil incorrectly
  • Relies heavily on memorization, as opposed to learning and understanding new skills
  • Reverses letters (d,b) or moves letters around (left, felt)
  • Struggles to follow a sequence of directions
  • Has trouble with word problems in math

DYSCALCULIA

  • Can't master basic math skills like counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing
  • Seems to understand the skills, but can't predict when to use them—when to add, for example, as opposed to multiply.
  • Struggles to organize objects in a logical way
  • Can't figure out how to tell time and/or use money, though her peers can
  • Inability to estimate number quantities
  • Does a poor job of self-checking work and locating alternative ways to solve problems

DYSGRAPHIA

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Mixes cursive and print writing
  • Says words out loud while writing
  • Concentrates so intensely on writing that he does not comprehend what's written
  • Struggles to think of words to write
  • Omits or doesn't finish words in sentences

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It is not uncommon for a person with one or more learning disabilities to struggle as well with motor skills (a condition known as dyspraxia), or the ability to plan and organize her life (called "executive functioning"). Finally, there are a number of other conditions that can impact an individual's ability to learn and function in society—autism spectrum disorders, visual and auditory disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even intellectual giftedness. All of these conditions—yes, even the "condition" of being super-smart—can obscure specific learning difficulties.

In practice, experts say, that means children with LD may be accused of being sloppy, or lazy; conversely, others may hear that they "worry too much" or "give up too easily." In reality, those kids may be overwhelmed by their school work and feel that their skills are inadequate to complete assignments.

"If you have an LD, you work a lot harder than the other kids," says Janet Morgan, a special-education teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District. "To be told you're not trying hard enough, that's really hard to hear."

So what should you do if you suspect this might be your child?

Begin by educating yourself on the subject (see For More Information below for some places to start). Then talk to your child's teacher. If, for example, you are concerned that your son is dyslexic, "ask that the reading specialist in school sit down and do a screening," Horowitz says. "Tell them, 'When I read with him at home, this is what he wasn't able to do. This is where he falls apart. Could you check that out for me?'"

You can also pay for a more extensive, private evaluation by a neuropsychologist. Though, be forewarned, those evaluations usually run into four figures.

"The evaluation process helps you compare your child to other children her age, and it helps you determine what's going on," says Erica M. Meyer, a neuropsychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles, Calif. "Is it that the child can't formulate language? Or does she have working memory issues? Or is it an attention problem? Making those kinds of distinctions, that's where evaluations are important."

Whatever your level of resources, if you suspect something is amiss, don't let it fester, Meyer says.

"There are things that make you say, `Hmm, we need to look into this further,'" she says. "So talk to your child's teacher. Have the school district do an evaluation. Then, together, you can make a plan so you know what to do and how to help your child."

For More Information:

National Center for Learning Disabilities

LD Online

Great Schools

PBS's Misunderstood Minds

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