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Complete Guide to Learning Disabilities

Anatomy of an LD

"Learning disabilities don't indicate a low IQ. They're not a death knell for learning," says Horowitz. "They slow a person down academically but needn't keep him from excelling. A colleague once called them 'islands of weakness in a sea of strengths.'"

The neurological glitches responsible for learning disabilities may cause up to 15 percent of the population to absorb or process information differently. Researchers believe that about half of all LDs are inherited. As for the other half, experts suspect them to be the result of brain disturbances caused by, among other factors, maternal smoking, drinking, or drug use, especially in the first months of pregnancy.

Typically, learning issues become most apparent during the third and fourth grades, when kids are hit with many new vocabulary words and scholastic demands increase. Because children with LD usually have a combination of disabilities whose severity can vary greatly, there is no cookie-cutter LD profile  -- and no standard prescription. Posing even more classroom challenges is the fact that about 20 percent of children with LD are also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Here, the lowdown on the most common learning disabilities.

Language disabilities. When Tina Strong's* son Anthony was 6, he was constantly confused by similar-sounding words. "For instance, he couldn't recognize the difference between 'phone' and 'foam' when they were spoken," says Strong, a mother of two in New York City. "He had a hard time following instructions, too. He'd hear the first few words, then start losing some words and get totally confused." Today, Strong has him work on a computer-based training course in language and reading and asks that his teacher seat him in the front of the class so she can check to make sure he's grasping the lesson.

Reading difficulties, often referred to by the catchall term "dyslexia," are the most common learning disabilities. Approximately 80 percent of children with LD have them. "Most of these children have a deficit in phonological awareness," says Reid Lyon, Ph.D., chief of the child development branch at the National Institutes of Health. "This means they have a hard time understanding that words are made up of smaller sounds, which is the foundation of reading." Some also have trouble dis-cerning positions and shapes  -- a u might look like an n; an E might look like a W or a 3. Children with a sequencing disability will see the letters d, o, and g in that order but may read them as "god." This reading problem can show up in spelling (a child might use the right letters but in the wrong order) and math (the equation "2 + 3 = 5" may be copied down as "2 + 5 = 3"). A dyslexic may also skip words or lines or read the same line twice.

Writing disabilities. "In the third grade, my daughter hid many of her papers in her desk instead of turning them in, because she was ashamed that she couldn't finish the work legibly," recalls Ann Fay,* a mom of two in the Midwest. Her daughter has since been diagnosed with a writing disability. This stems from two main problems. First, a child may have trouble with the fine motor skills (like proper pencil grip) needed to write clearly.

The second element is a lack of the organizational skills required to transfer thoughts to paper; typically, the child seems to know more than she can put down in writing. These problems can have a profound impact on her academic performance, says Larry Silver, M.D., president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. "Most schools do not grade you on what you know but on what you can express on paper."

Math disabilities. Marian Hawkins,* a mother in Buffalo, says that her daughter couldn't count change in the fifth grade. An alarm went off, and Hawkins hired a tutor to work with her child twice a week.

"To master arithmetic, children must understand the quantity that each number represents and the concepts involved in solving problems," explains David C. Geary, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. "A math learning disability can result from difficulties in grasping any one, or any combination, of these basic skills."