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Learning Disorders


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2023
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What are learning disorders?

Learning disorders are problems with the brain’s ability to get, remember, or use information. These problems make it hard to focus and do well in school.

Children don't have learning disorders because they're lazy or misbehaving. Something in their brain didn't develop properly. Doctors don't know for sure why this happens, but learning disorders are more likely if:

  • The mother was sick or used certain illicit drugs during pregnancy

  • The mother or baby had medical complications during pregnancy

  • The child had a serious illness (such as cancer) at a young age

Common learning disorders are:

Children who aren't learning at the level appropriate to their age and ability should be tested for learning disorders.

What are the symptoms of learning disorders?

Young children with learning disorders may take longer than usual to learn:

  • Names of colors, letters, or objects

  • How to count

  • How to read and write

Children may also have:

  • Short attention spans

  • Trouble paying attention

  • Speech or language problems

  • Trouble understanding directions

  • Trouble remembering things that happened recently

  • Trouble with hand and finger use, such as printing and copying

Some children with learning disorders become frustrated at school. The frustration can cause behavioral problems, such as being hyperactive, shy, or aggressive.

Children with dyslexia, one type of reading disorder, have symptoms like:

  • Slow to start talking and naming letters and pictures

  • Trouble making sounds for words or putting sounds in the right order

  • Trouble seeing single words in a group or parts of one word

  • Slow to read out loud

  • More spelling and writing errors than usual, such as reversing letters in words

How can doctors tell if my child has a learning disorder?

Doctors will test your child’s hearing and eyesight to make sure those aren't the cause of your child’s learning problems (hearing and vision problems aren't learning disorders).

To know for sure, they’ll send your child to a learning specialist (often at the child’s school). The specialist will do a series of intelligence tests and ask your child reading, writing, and math questions.

How are learning disorders treated?

Learning disorders are treated through educational programs that help children with learning disorders. For example, dyslexia is treated with programs that teach children to identify words by paying attention to the sounds. These programs also use audio books, computer screen readers, and other tools.

Some children with learning disorders also have ADHD Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder that makes it hard to focus, pay attention, and sit still. It often causes problems at school and home. ADHD symptoms can... read more (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Medicines that doctors prescribe for ADHD help children concentrate, which may help them learn better.

In the United States, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to test children for learning disorders. It also requires schools to provide free and appropriate education to children with learning disorders.

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