Learning Disabilities: So What Are They ?

Put very simply, learning disabilities are in many cases an issue of perception or translation. It is a difference in the way the brain is "wired" which often results in children seeing the world (numbers, letters, etc) in a very different manner. The effects? The child has difficulty reading, spelling, writing, memorizing facts, even organizing their thoughts or recalling facts and sometimes there may be difficulties with logic. In short, a learning disability (LD) makes tasks that are simple to the average child, a mammoth task to a child with a learning disability or (as some people in the Special Education circle may say) an "LD child".

For example, where a child will see the letters "THE" a child with learning disabilities - such as dyslexia (or similar) will may the letters jumbled up, back to front, or worse still, backwards (as with mirror writing shown below).

Four Categories

Learning Disabilities are generally divided into four categories, which relate to how the brain processes information. These four categories are (1) Input, (2)Output, (3) Memory and (4) Integration

Input Learning Disabilities:

This relates to how the child's brain translates the information that it receives. It has nothing to do with external issues such as far sighted or the child being hard of hearing. Rather, this is about what the brain does to the information that the eyes and ears absorb. Dyslexia is an example of an input disability. It is one of the language-based learning disabilities that cause a person to have trouble understanding written words. It may also be referred to as reading disability or reading disorder.

Output Learning Disabilities:

Output disabilities fall into two categories - Language Disabilities and Motor Disabilities. Output disabilities affect the information that comes out of the brain (1)in the form of words - namely - language output (- an example could be where a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision. (2) The second type output disability can show up through the use of motor activity - for example writing, gesturing, signing, drawing or painting. Dysgraphia is an example of a disability that relates to a motor activity. It is a writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space.

Memory Learning Disabilities:

These can affect both the long and short-term memory.

The short-term memory is like a work desk (hopefully nothing like mine) or work surface, where information is kept only for as long as it is needed and can be put into a safe place at a later date. The short term memory is where we retain information for a very limited period of time, for example until we can write it down or put it into immediate use - this may be an address that needs to be put into the GPS or even an account number that needs to be written into a bank deposit slip. In short, the information remains in one's mind only for a few moments before we forget it.

A disability affecting the short term memory is one that is often seen among children and is in many cases manifested in information having to be repeated ten to fifteen times, whereas the average child requires only three to five repetitions to retain a concept or for the information to move to long term memory. Yet, it is not unusual for this same child to have perfect memories of something that may have happened many years ago.

There are two types of short-term disabilities - visual and auditory.

The long-term memory can be likened to a filing cabinet. A place where information can be held for as long it need to, and drawn upon in time of need. The contents of the long term memory are created through repetiton. For example, when asked for your telephone number, you will recite it almost immediately and effortlessly. On the other hand if you just bought a new cell phone this morning, that information would not come to your lips as easily.

If your child has a memory disability that was not obvious to you, it is most likely to be a short term one. Long term memory disabilities are said to interfere with a person's day to day functioning to the extent that most of the time, the are classified as retarted.

Integration Learning Disabilities:

Integration speaks of how the information that comes into the brain is finally understood. Psychologists tell us that this is done in two stages - (1) sequencing and (2) absraction. Let's take sequencing first. Remember this has nothing to do with visual perception. If your brain records three letters/symbols s, u, n, the brain still has to put them into a sequence. Now will it put them in sequence of "u, n, s" or "n, u, s" or will it put them in the order of "s,u, n"? So a child with a sequencing disability might have a hard time listing the months of the year in their correct order (e.g January, February, April, June, March ...) because of how their brain is wired to interpret or sequence that information.

The next stage is Abstraction. This stage requires one to infer some specific (or general) meaning from the context in which the word was used. Otherwise known as abstract thinking - dictionary.com defines it as "thinking characterized by the ability to use concepts and to make and understand generalizations, such as of the properties or pattern shared by a variety of specific items or events. Or in other words, ones ability to attach subtle shadings or meaning to the basic meanings of words. This may be something that many of us take for granted, for people who suffer from integration disabilities, this is almost an impossibility. For example a teenager with an abstraction disability may find it difficult to interpret a saying such as "you can take a horse to the water but you cannot force it to drink". Their mind would find it difficult to think beyond the direct words such as the horse, water and drinking.

A Special Note For Parents

Special education can be a whole new world

Any parent whose child required some form of special education (possibly due to the diagnosis of a learning disability) will quickly tell you that it is a whole new world that speaks a language of it's own. Yes, all the officials and teachers speak "special ed" and of course they expect you to understand it! Acronyms are thrown around left, right and center and to the untrained ear, they may as well be speaking portugese.

So as a parent of a newly diagnosed child, the first thing that one might need to do is to begin to educate yourself about how to navigate the world of Special Education. And every step of the way, there should be one question in mind: "How can I use what I am learning to benefit my child's education (and maybe help others)"? The purpose of this question is to allow you to focus. Now why would you need any help doing that? After all your child is the reason why you are doing this in the first place, right? Well, in the world of Special education your child is one among many - and in addition, the world of education is so broad that achievement can only come through focusing on what is most important to the success of your child.

I hope this site provides you with some guidelines - and when you become a veteran, remember to "pay it forward" and help someone else!

Take a look at some of the other articles below..... There Will Always Be Hope - Find Out How Your Child Learns

An Interview With The Head of the Special Education Department of A Georgia High School

Learning Disabilities: Creating Reading Habits