Why can’t Johnny read? After all, the doctor said his eyesight and hearing are normal and he seems like a bright boy. But when Johnny tries to read, learn new words or write his name, the result is frustration, embarrassment and failing marks.
Like nearly 3 million other youngsters, Johnny can’t read because he has a learning disability. For some reason, his brain doesn’t convert what he sees or hears into an image that his mind can recognize and remember.
Learning disabilities have nothing to do with lack of motivation or low intelligence. But their consequences—especially teasing from classmates and feeling like a failure—cause nearly half of learning-disabled students to quit school.
The American Academy of Pediatrics lists four basic learning disabilities:
- Dyslexia, in which the brain reverses or rearranges letters and parts of sentences. A “6” becomes a “9,” an “s” looks like a “z” and “See Spot run” might look like “eeS pSotr un.”
- Dysgraphia, which impedes handwriting. A dysgraphic child writes incorrectly formed letters, and sentences wander inside and outside the lines and margins. These kids struggle so much with writing that their work is often incomplete or not done on time.
- Dyscalculia, or problems with math. Although many students find math challenging, a child with dyscalculia cannot grasp even the basics of, say, multiplying or dividing—yet may handle other subjects with ease.
- Auditory memory and processing, in which the child’s memory doesn’t correctly store and remember words and sounds.
These disabilities are being researched partly because the number of students (usually boys) with them is increasing. Most estimates say 6 percent to 10 percent of public school kids are now afflicted—some more severely than others.
Doctors think learning disabilities may be genetic since they tend to run in families. Some educators say these kids simply learn differently, so traditional schoolhouse methods are part of the problem. Whatever their causes, these disabilities are lifelong and incurable. But most learning disabilities can be managed or even minimized.
If you suspect a learning disability in your child, it’s best to see your pediatrician right away. He or she can help sort out the possible causes of your youngster’s problems. Besides testing vision and hearing, your doctor will look for any underlying disease that may cause symptoms resembling a learning disability. Other tests can analyze reading and reasoning skills, speech patterns and memory power.
If a disorder is found, remedial education offers promise and hope for learning-disabled children. Highly trained teachers use a child’s sense of vision, hearing and touch to help him or her recognize and understand words and sentences. In extreme cases, tutors and intensive micro-classes have helped kids grasp at least basic reading, writing and math skills—a feat considered impossible a generation ago.
In addition, special-education pupils often join groups that don’t involve their particular disorder. Kids with dyslexia, for example, can still be athletic, and youngsters with trouble understanding math can still become formidable chess opponents.
Of course, progress is sometimes difficult. But the prognosis for these kids keeps improving. One thing experts agree on: The sooner a child’s learning disability is identified and treated, the better the chance for a complete education and successful adulthood.