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Student's Digest

Getting to Know Disabilities

Here is information about some disabilities. Remember, everyone is different and the information here is limited. For more information about disabilities, please see the suggestions under Learning More About Disabilities in this part of the Web site.


Learning Disabilities

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a disorder that makes it hard to understand what you see or hear and to link information from different parts of the brain. These difficulties can show up in many ways: as specific challenges with speaking and writing, moving your body or coordination, controlling your body, or paying attention. These difficulties make school work challenging and you may struggle in learning to read, write, or do math.

[National Institutes of Health, 1993]

Learning disabilities are not a sign of low intelligence. Some extremely smart people have learning disabilities.


What are the types of learning disabilities?

"Learning disability" is a general word that can mean a lot of things. Because of this, it is hard to diagnose or to find the causes. Learning disabilities can be divided up into three categories. These types of learning disabilities are:

  • Developmental speech and language disorders
  • Academic skills disorders
  • "Other", a type that includes coordination disorders and learning difficulties not covered by the first two types

Each one of these types includes a lot of more specific disorders.

[National Institutes of Health, 1993]


What causes learning disabilities?

No one knows what causes learning disabilities. There are too many possibilities to pin down one cause of the disability. Many scientists think that learning disabilities stem from subtle changes in the brain. Instead of focusing on finding a cause, it is more important that we work on finding ways to be successful despite the disability.


1. Developmental Speech and Language Disorders

Speech and language difficulties are often the earliest sign of a learning disability. People with developmental speech and language disorder have difficulty communicating or understanding what others say. Some specific diagnoses are:

  • Developmental articulation disorder
  • Developmental expressive language disorder
  • Developmental receptive language disorder


1a. Developmental Articulation Disorder

People with this disorder may have trouble with how fast they talk. Or they may lag behind others in learning to speak. Developmental articulation disorders are common. They appear in at least 10% of children who are younger than age 8. Articulation disorders often go away as children get older or as children are treated with speech therapy.


1b. Developmental Expressive Language Disorder

Some children with language difficulties find it hard to express what they want to say in speech. Their disorder is called a developmental expressive language disorder. This disorder can take many forms. For example, a 4-year-old who uses phrases with two words and a six-year-old who can’t answer questions may both have an expressive language disorder.


1c. Developmental Receptive Language Disorder

Some people have trouble with understanding speech. There’s a toddler who doesn’t respond to his name, a preschooler who hands you a bell when you asked for a ball, or a worker who consistently can’t follow directions. They can hear, but they can’t make sense of certain noises, words, or sentences they hear. They may even seem like they are not paying attention. These people may have a receptive language disorder. Speaking and understanding what people say are related, so many people with receptive language disorders also have an expressive language disability. [Of course, in preschoolers, some misuse of sounds or grammar is a normal part of learning to speak. It’s only when these problems stay that there is any cause for concern.]


2. Academic Skills Disorders

Students with academic skills disorders are often behind in reading, writing, or math skills. The diagnoses in this category are:

  • Developmental reading disorder
  • Developmental writing disorder
  • Developmental arithmetic disorder


2a. Developmental Reading Disorder

This type of disorder, also know as dyslexia, is quite common. In fact, reading disabilities are found in 2-8% of children in elementary school. When you think of what is involved in the "three R’s" – reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic – it’s astounding that any of us do learn them, considering that to read, you must simultaneously:

  • Pay attention to the print and control eye movements
  • Recognize the sounds for each letter
  • Understand the words and grammar
  • Generate ideas and images
  • Compare new ideas to what you already know
  • Keep ideas in memory

A person can have problems in any of these tasks. Scientists find that a lot of people with dyslexia also have an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in speech. Some children have difficulties sounding out words or playing rhyming games, such as rhyming "cat" with "bat." Scientists find these skills are needed for people to learn to read. Reading specialists have developed ways to help many children with dyslexia gain these skills.

However, there is more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain is unable to form images or relate new ideas to old ideas, the reader can’t understand or remember the new concepts. So other reading disabilities can appear in high school, when the focus of reading is comprehension.


2b. Developmental Writing Disorder

Writing, too, involves many parts of the brain. The areas of the brain that help us learn words, follow grammar rules, move our hands, and remember everything must all be in good shape. So, a developmental writing disorder may result from difficulties in any of the parts of the brain. For example, a child with a writing disability may be unable to make sentences.


2c. Developmental Arithmetic Disorder

Math involves many skills. You need to recognize the numbers and symbols, know concepts like fractions, and memorize many facts. Any of these may be difficult for children with developmental arithmetic disorders, also called dyscalculia. Children will have challenges with numbers or basic concepts. Disabilities that appear in high school are more often tied to difficulties in reasoning.

Many skills that we need to speak, read, listen, do math, and write are the same and build on the same abilities of the brain. So, it’s not surprising that people can be diagnosed as having more than one area of learning disability. For example, the ability to understand what is said is needed to learn to speak. Therefore, any disorder that hinders the ability to understand what is said will also interfere with the development of speech, and hinder the ability to learn to read and write.


3. Other Learning Differences

There are also other types of learning disabilities, such as "motor skills disorders" and "specific developmental disorders not otherwise specified." People may have difficulty with speaking, learning information at school, and moving their bodies. These challenges can affect the ability to learn, but do not meet the criteria for a specific learning disability. Also included are coordination disorders that can lead to poor penmanship, as well as spelling and memory disorders.

[National Institutes of Health, 1993]


Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders can interfere with your ability to make friends, to relate to adults, and to succeed in school. Some examples of mental health disorders include:


1. Depressive Disorders

If you have depression, you may have many symptoms. Here are some of the signs of depression:

  • feeling very unhappy with your life
  • having a hard time sleeping at night
  • wanting to go to bed during the day
  • having low energy
  • having slow body movements
  • feeling bad about yourself
  • feeling tired
  • having a hard time paying attention to anything
  • thinking a lot about death or suicide

If you have five of these signs for over two weeks, then you may have a depressive disorder and you should talk to your parents, doctor, counselor, or someone you trust.


2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

If you have this disorder, then you may have a long history of symptoms. The signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder include:

  • fidgeting
  • difficulty sitting
  • being distracted
  • difficulty waiting for your turn in games or groups
  • blurting out answers to questions before the questions are finished
  • difficulty with instructions
  • difficulty paying attention
  • shifting from one activity to another when the first activity is not finished
  • difficulty playing quietly
  • talking a lot
  • interrupting or intruding on others
  • not listening
  • losing things
  • acting when you have not thought about the consequences

If you have eight or more of these signs, then you may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and you should talk to your parents, doctor, counselor, or someone you trust.


3. Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorders can interfere with school work, as well as lead a person to hate school and skip school. If you have anxiety, then you may have social anxiety, which means that you have a lot of anxiety about speaking in class. If you have been traumatized, then you may have post-traumatic anxiety symptoms, which interfere with your ability to function in school. Some symptoms of anxiety are:

  • avoiding school
  • feeling shy
  • wanting everything to be perfect
  • feeling like you cannot stop yourself from doing some things
  • worrying about yourself getting hurt
  • worrying about loved ones getting hurt when you are not with them
  • being very afraid of an animal or being in small places
  • being very worried about your abilities or the future


4. Conduct Disorders

Some of the signs of conduct disorders are stealing, running away from home, making threats, challenging the authority of teachers, setting fires, breaking and entering, destroying things, hurting animals, forcing others into sexual activity, using weapons, starting fights, hurting people, and skipping school. If you are concerned about whether you have a conduct disorder you should talk to your parents, doctor, counselor, or someone you trust.


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