ABCD: Living with a Learning Disability

Learning is a pathway for acquiring, storing, and utilizing information. Our brains do the magic of learning in most incredible ways. There is an old Chinese proverb, “To be fond of learning is to be at the gate of knowledge.” When our information processing is interfered with, our ability to learn is altered. The truth of the matter is: We all have some form of a learning disability. The cause, type and severity of any specific learning problem is individualistic; yet, it may fall into a pattern of definable symptoms. The Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities, in its 1987 report to the United States Congress identified learning disabilities as “a generic term that refers to a group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities, or of social skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed due to a central nervous system dysfunction.”

When I was taking a psychopharmacology course in graduate school, I remember coming across the term ‘amusica’. It was defined as a learning problem in which individuals are unable to process music. I immediately self-diagnosed. Throughout my life…being tone deaf…getting a ‘D’ in third grade music class…being the only child in class not making the fifth grade choir…and to this day not being able recall the words to a complete song…I have AMUSICA! Clearly, amusica isn’t a classic learning disability and did not directly prohibit learning outside the music world. Yet, it is a personal example of how brain dysfunction manifests problems in the affective, behavioral, cognitive and developmental realms.


AFFECTIVE: The affective realm refers to the emotional or feeling state of an individual. Learning disabilities impact the affective or emotional well being of a child. The constant frustration of not being able to learn effectively while saddled with a repeated sense of failure and incompetence fosters a negative self-image in the child. The affective realm of the child is further hampered as she becomes increasingly more aware of her peers’ relative successes. On the other hand, children who are taught effective strategies to cope with their disability and learn skills to overcome their weaknesses become stronger individuals. The affective realm of the child, in this case, is positively enhanced breeding feelings of self worth and competence.

BEHAVIORAL: The behavioral realm refers to observable human actions. Learning disabilities affect a child’s behavior. When the learning environment does not respond to a child’s learning needs, behavioral problems often occur. Acting out, aggression, withdrawal, and refusals are common examples. If a learning disability is addressed positively in a family or school system, the child may continue to exhibit frustration and act out, but he will also learn the value of perseverance and follow through as well as being open and responsive to the learning process.

COGNITIVE: The definition of cognitive refers, in the broadest sense, to memory, perception and judgment. Learning disabilities affect these mental processes in very specific ways. For example, dyslexia, which is a reading disorder, may result in visual perception problems like letter reversals (b/d) or word rotations (was/saw). The cognitive deficits are not the child’s fault and are not related to motivation! A child who has a learning disability means the child has a central brain dysfunction affecting the cognitive realm.

DEVELOPMENTAL: At each stage of development the child learns new sets of tasks in a variety of areas. Speech, motor and language problems may be identified at very early ages. Learning problems become more noticeable when children learn to read in the first grade. Actually, a learning disability, according to federal law (Public Law 94-142), cannot be diagnosed until a child falls at least two grades behind. Consequently, children are often not classified as learning disabled until they have experienced several years of academic failure! All too often, children fall into the proverbial “gray area” of unclassified problems and do not receive the academic support they desperately need and deserve. A good and thorough Neuropsychological Evaluation is central to addressing a child’s learning disability and its effects. The earlier a parent seeks professional intervention, the more likely a child will learn the tools to compensate for learning problems.


We, as parents, often identify with our child’s learning style. When she is successful, we privately glow. When she fails, we secretly cry. We must be able to read the cues of our child just as our child must be able to read our cues. An unrecognized learning disability negatively affects the parent-child relationship.

Parents need to recognize, accept, and respect their child’s learning disability. With early intervention, parent advocacy in the schools, and a learning environment that understands the affective, behavioral, cognitive, and developmental factors of learning disabilities, children can learn to master their disability. Remember, we provide our children one education!