Understanding Specific Learning Disorders!

Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs) are among the most common neuropsychiatric disorders studied in child and adolescent populations. So, how do they affect us?

Article written by: Aishwarya S Y

Specific learning disability (SLD) is an information-processing problem that prevents a person from learning a skill and using it effectively. SLD is also commonly called as Learning disability (LD), Dyslexia, Learning impairment, Learning deficit, etc. Common learning disorders affect a child’s abilities in reading, written expression, math or nonverbal skills. Given that an estimated 5–10% of the worldwide population is said to have SLD. SLD can run in families, and if a parent or the sibling having SLD increases the risk for the child which is known as family risk (FR), Psychological trauma or abuse in early childhood may affect brain development and increase the risk of learning disorders, Physical trauma like head injuries or nervous system infections might play a role in the development of learning disorders, Environmental exposure where exposure to high levels of toxins, such as lead, has been linked to an increased risk of learning disorders.

Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs) are among the most common neuropsychiatric disorders studied in child and adolescent populations. This disorder begins in childhood, but the characteristics and impairment continue to persist in adult life if the disorder is not treated. Few common signs exhibited by children with SLD:

  • Doesn’t master skills in reading, spelling, writing or math at or near expected age and grade levels
  • Has difficulty understanding and following instructions
  • Has trouble remembering what someone just told him or her
  • Lacks coordination in walking, sports or skills such as holding a pencil
  • Easily loses or misplaces homework, schoolbooks or other items
  • Has difficulty understanding the concept of time
  • Resists doing homework or activities that involve reading, writing or math, or consistently can’t complete homework assignments without significant help
  • Reversing letters, words, or numbers, after first or second grade
  • Difficulty understanding the concept of time

In addition to academic difficulties, these students are at a high risk of developing psychiatric disorders as there are high chances of dropping out of school. Knowing the early signs of possible learning disability can help parents get their child the help he or she needs as soon as possible. Assessing the child with SLD includes observations of the child, interviews with the family, checklists and rating scales, informal tests, and standardized, formal tests. Assessment information is useful for identifying the child as eligible for special services, planning intervention, and measuring progress.

Many studies have shown that early intervention in kindergarten or the first grade is critical for decreasing the prevalence of reading impairments. Although early intervention is successful for many students, there is large variability in intervention response; for instance, 8% to 80% of students show minimal or no improvement after treatment (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2002). Therefore, this group of students will require ongoing and intensive programming to support their academic progress. In addition to this, few studies have shown that all-day intensive and tailored intervention implemented by teachers in a real-world context and not a rigid clinical research trial can bring improvement in a child with SLD. However, the results also suggest that ongoing interventions are needed and a few other modifications like small class size, increased time in the program and more tutors in the classroom.

There is evidence suggesting that dyslexia may play a role in the choice of academic course choice. Richardson and Wydell (2003) compared U.K. students both with and without dyslexia on their choice of academic subject and on their academic performance. The results showed that students with dyslexia were less likely than their peers to choose degree courses in veterinary science, arts, law, education, and medicine. Instead, they indicated a preference for students with dyslexia to enroll in agriculture, creative arts, engineering, architecture, physical sciences, human science, social studies, biology, and computer science degree programs.

A wide range of research has investigated what people understand about dyslexia. In relation to public conceptualizations of dyslexia, a survey including 380 participants was conducted. Participants were described as the “lay public.” Participants described dyslexia as a “learning disability characterized by problems with words and language”; however, they were unsure about the underlying neurobiological aspects of dyslexia and also the participants showed a lack of experience about the multifaceted aspects of dyslexia.

However, the results of a study (Cathryn Knight, 2018) suggest that a majority of teachers understand dyslexia as the individuals who struggle with reading, writing and spelling. Results from both the current and previous research show that biological and cognitive factors are not as commonly mentioned by teachers. A good understanding of dyslexia is important in successfully intervening to best help those with dyslexia.

Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016) is the disability legislation passed by the Indian Parliament to fulfill the obligations to the United National Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The number of disabilities has been increased from existing 7 to 21 by the Central government. SLD has also been added as one of the disabilities under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. The Learning Disability (LD) movement in India is very recent when compared to the western world, where LD movements started nearly half a century ago. In the eastern world, LD was considered a problem of English-speaking countries. Since the usage of English is not prevalent, there was a lack of concern for LD in India. LDs were considered as a problem caused by overcrowded classrooms. However, during the last decade or two, there has been an increasing awareness and identification of children with LD in India. Despite this growing interest, there are only 4 states – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Delhi that have taken various measures for the identification and diagnosis of SLDs in India. The Karnataka Government states that candidates with SLDs need to be certified from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, St John’s Hospital, Bangalore or All-India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysore. The certification can be signed by any psychiatrist working in a government hospital or any clinical psychologist with an M.Phil degree or can be attested by a government doctor but the doctor should not be below the rank of a district surgeon.

Learning disabilities have nothing to do with how smart a person is. Rather, a person with a learning disability may just see, hear, or understand things differently. That can make everyday tasks, such as studying for a test or staying focused in class, much more difficult.

“When you hear the word ‘disabled’, people immediately think about people who can’t walk or talk or do everything that people take for granted. Now, I take nothing for granted. But I find real disability is people who can’t find joy in life and are bitter”

Teri Garr

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