What is a learning disability?

Federal law states that a learning disability (LD) is a permanent neurological disorder that may be subtle to severe. It limits the brain’s ability to store, process, and produce information and affects a person’s ability to speak, listen, read, write, or do math. A child with a learning disability has average to above average intelligence, but he or she falls below his or her academic potential to a significant degree. The current estimates indicate that children with learning disabilities make up 15 percent of the school-age population.

What are the risks factors?

The most common risk factor is family history. Less common risk factors include poor nutrition, severe head injuries, child abuse, and pregnancy-related factors. (National Center for Learning Disabilities)

Lead poisoning, infections of the central nervous system, or treatment for cancers, such as leukemia, can also increase the risk for learning disabilities.

What factors are not considered risk factors?

Blindness, visual problems, deafness, physical or motor handicaps can cause difficulties with learning, but are not a cause of learning disabilities. Likewise, intellectual disabilities (formerly called mental retardation), autism spectrum disorders, or low intelligence quotient (IQ) all may be associated with learning difficulties, but are not considered learning disabilities. Environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages do not cause learning disabilities but may co-occur with learning disabilities. Similarly, behavioral disorders or emotional disturbances may also be present with learning disabilities.

What other problems might children with learning disabilities have?

About 20 percent of children with learning disabilities also have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children with learning disabilities may become frustrated, lose interest in school, and avoid challenges. They may have low self-esteem and emotional problems, such as withdrawal, anxiety, depression, or aggression. It is also common for children with learning disabilities to have social problems. Children with undiagnosed learning disabilities can become angry and frustrated. These feelings may lead to emotional problems.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is one of the most common forms of learning disability. Dyslexia is a language-based disorder that affects reading, writing, spelling, and often handwriting. Although letter or word reversals may be a concern for children with dyslexia, they are not the primary markers for dyslexia.

Who is likely to suspect a learning disability?

The child’s parents and teachers are most likely to suspect a learning disability since they spend the most time with the child. The child’s physician may also suspect a learning disability.

What are the signs of learning disabilities?

The following signs may signal that a child has a learning disability:

  • Dislike of or difficulty with reading
  • Poor handwriting
  • Difficulty with math
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts to express what they want to say
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble with coordination
  • Difficulty with language such as following directions, remembering words, rhyming, and expressing oneself
  • Difficulty with reasoning
  • Difficulty with spelling
  • History of delayed speech

What are the signs of dyslexia?

The early signs of dyslexia include:

  • A delay in spoken language
  • Difficulty "finding" the right word
  • Difficulty with rhyming
  • Difficulty with short-term auditory memory
  • Subtle mispronunciations, particularly of words with more than one syllable

After a child enters school, the following signs of dyslexia may appear:

  • Difficulty learning the names of the letters of the alphabet
  • Difficulty learning how to write the letters of the alphabet
  • Difficulty learning whole words for reading and spelling
  • Difficulty using phonics
  • Difficulty with comprehension related to difficulty reading words

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/12/2012.


  • National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Learning Disabilities Overview. www.nichd.nih.gov. Accessed 12/14/2012
  • Fredrick DR. Chapter 17. Special Subjects of Pediatric Interest. In: Riordan-Eva P, Cunningham, Jr. ET, eds. Vaughan & Asbury's General Ophthalmology. 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011. www.accessmedicine.com. Accessed 12/14/2012
  • Tramontana MG. Chapter 32. Learning Disorders. In: Ebert MH, Loosen PT, Nurcombe B, Leckman JF, eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Psychiatry. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2008. www.accessmedicine.com. Accessed 12/14/2012

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