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).
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