Learning is a very complex process; since a comprehensive review of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, only the most important and general steps are mentioned here. The reader must also keep in mind that LD could happen in any one (or more) of the steps in learning. The first step in learning involves reception of information from our environment. One learns by using his/her senses. In school settings, overwhelming amount of information is taught through the visual and auditory senses. The most common problem for individuals with LD in this step is reversal and inability to discriminate sounds. For example, a person with a learning disability may not be able to distinguish between "p" and "q" in printed material. He/She may be unable to distinguish subtle differences in sounds, such as distinguishing between "cat" and "hat". However, if someone is blind or deaf, that does not necessarily indicate LD because the senses are incapable of picking out the information in the first place. The second step in learning is understanding. The information that is received by the brain must be processed and made sense of in order for it to be learned. Some individuals with LD are unable to process information accurately, as though the information was communicated to them in a foreign language. They require extra time to process and understand such information. The third step in learning involves memory. Putting aside factors such as anxiety or poor attention and concentration, problems with memorization and retention of information is one of the most common indicators of LD. These individuals are able to receive accurate information from the environment and fully understand and process the information but are unable to retain what they have understood. The fourth step in learning is communication. Information that has been learned and memorized needs to be expressed or communicated in some format. Information can be communicated orally, through written word, or manually. Individuals who have LD may have problems with expression of the information they have learned. They may not be able to organize their written work or oral presentation.
Causes of LDThe brain is a very complex organ, learning is a very complex process, and no two people with LD have identical deficits and strengths. This makes pinpointing the cause of learning disabilities an extremely complex task. However, some hypotheses have been put forth. Since LD tends to run in families, genetics may play a role in this disorder. Another possible cause could be related to deficits and errors in development of the fetal brain through trauma or exposure to toxins. Yet another hypothesis points to exposure to toxins in children’s environment. What is certain is that no single neurological cause is the culprit.
Also, many other disorders, such as brain injury, ADHD, anxiety, or depression, may mimic symptoms of LD. However, in most cases when the underlying cause, such as anxiety, has been treated, learning problems tend to be resolved. Furthermore, lack of opportunity to learn, such as bad schooling or lack of education does not indicate learning disability.
How to diagnose LDA learning disability, similar to any other disorder, must cause significant distress and impede normal functioning. The first step of diagnosis of LD involves doing an extensive personal history related to the individuals’ development, education, health, and psychiatric- and family background. The second step requires administration of standardized tests of aptitude and achievement.
Aptitude tests, such as intelligence tests, measure a person’s innate ability to learn academic information, pinpoint strengths, and identify deficits. It is important to remember that no aptitude test is capable of measuring all aspects of intelligence. However, most aptitude tests have shown to be valid and reliable measures for predicting an ability to learn academic material.
Achievement tests are designed to measure what the person has learned so far. Achievement tests have similar limitations as aptitude tests. The purpose of testing is manifold. First, the test should identify deficits in one or more steps of learning, such as visual processing deficit, auditory processing deficit, long and/or short-term memory deficits, etc. Second, and as a result of the deficits, the test should indicate significant discrepancies between aptitude and achievement. That means if a person is achieving significantly below their innate capabilities, then LD may be the cause.
You can contact a psychologist specifically trained in neuropsychological assessment and ask for an evaluation.
A neuropsych evaluation consists of several different psychological tests that evaluate aspects of intelligence, personality, mood, memory and brain functioning. Only a psychologist or neuropsychologist is trained to administer and interpret such tests. The psychologist should be able to provide you with feedback about the nature and possible causes of your problems and recommend ways to cope with or change them.
You can find a psychologist trained in neuropsychological evaluation by contacting your state psychological association (usually headquartered in the state capital), the psychology department of a nearby college or university, your local community mental health center or even the Yellow Pages. If there's a large hospital near you, its psychiatry department may also be able to give you some names. (Be aware that neuropsychologists and neurologists are not the same -- neurologists are physicians with medical rather than psychological training.) Your physician may also be able to make a referral.