"For years we have observed that individuals who experience dyslexic symptoms are highly intelligent. The talents that create the vulnerability for confusing symbolic information are assets in other ways." —Joan M. Smith Ed.D. Educational Psychologist
Everyone processes information differently. However, human biology is such that people's individual learning styles tend to cluster into specific categories. Therefore, while each person's learning-style is unique and should be treated as such, there is much that can be said about learning disabilities in general.
Learning disabled students process information from different and/or multiple perspectives which often causes difficulties when they are asked to think or work in a "traditional" manner. It is not that these students cannot learn, it is that their different learning styles come with sets of characteristic strengths and weaknesses that differ from those of people without such disabilities.
For some, their learning strategy may simply create difficulties with basic skills such as reading and writing. Other learning disabled persons, may not have difficulties learning, but can only learn effectively in certain formats or environments. In these situations, the problem is not inability, but one of stylistic differences. Often the strategies that cause these difficulties with basic skills also create aptitudes in other disciplines such as music, engineering, or art. In fact, given adequate support and flexibility, many learning disabled individuals, such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and W.B. Yeats, have enjoyed a great deal of success in their respective academic fields. Many argue that such successes are not in spite of, but due to learning disabilities.
It should also be made clear that giftedness and learning disabilities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the Gifted Child Development Center in Colorado reported that about one sixth of the children who had been brought there to be assessed for giftedness fell into the LD-Gifted category (Silverman, 38). Teachers and parents often do not understand that someone can be extremely gifted and still have problems with fundamental tasks such as reading. Therefore, they assume that these students are lazy and unmotivated, even if the student is working twice as hard just to keep up.
The scientific diagnosis of learning disabilities has focused primarily on the "discrepancy model". This method describes learning disabilities as discrepancies between expectations based on IQ and actual performance. If it appears that the person has problems perceiving, processing, comprehending, retaining, or retrieving certain types of information, despite having a normal or greater level of intelligence and regardless of effort and opportunity, then she or he is considered to be learning disabled.
Almost all cases of learning disabilities are acquired at birth. While research indicates that symptoms may vary in severity over time, learning disabilities persist throughout life and are thought to be genetic in origin. Recent findings seem to indicate that learning disabilities are caused by differences in the brain's structure and function.
While there are no standard definitions for dyslexia as yet, one of the more accepted definitions put forward by the World Federation of Neurology is, "A disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and sociocultural opportunity." This learning style effects the way that symbolic information, especially when related to language, is processed, retained, and recalled. People with dyslexia often have difficulty understanding basic sound components in words (phonics). Since it frequently appears concurrently with other learning disabilities, dyslexia is often incorrectly used to describe problems with spelling and writing (dysgraphia), difficulties with math (dyscalculia), and problems with motor planning (dyspraxia). It is by far the most common learning disability and is present to some degree in about 5-10% of the general population (Brown University, 3).
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/ Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Individuals with ADD experience difficulties filtering out unwanted stimuli from their surroundings. This often results in a reduced ability to concentrate and can create organizational problems. Hyperactivity can, but does not necessarily accompany, ADD. There is medication available for those people who have been clinically diagnosed, but its effectiveness varies from individual to individual. It is often recommended that if medication is used that it be accompanied by other forms of support or compensation techniques. The "official" clinical diagnosis is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.
While every person's experience is unique, there is also a great deal of common ground among different types of learning disabilities. Many people experience one or two of these symptoms, but those who have learning disabilities typically experience many more and to a much greater extent. The following is a compilation of classic signs of learning disabilities by AHEAD, the Association on Higher Education and Disability:
- Reading Skills
- Slow reading rate and /or difficulty in modifying reading rate in accordance with material's level of difficulty.
- Uneven comprehension and retention of material that is read.
- Difficulty identifying important points and themes.
- Incomplete mastery of phonics, confusion of similar words, difficulty integrating new vocabulary.
- Skips words or lines of printed material.
- Difficulty reading for long periods of time.
- Written Language Skills
- Difficulty planning a topic and organizing thoughts on paper.
- Difficulty with sentence structure (e.g., incomplete sentences, run-ons, poor use of grammar, missing inflectional endings).
- Frequent spelling errors (e.g., omissions, substitutions, transpositions), especially in specialized and foreign vocabulary.
- Difficulty effectively proofreading written work and making revisions.
- Compositions are often limited in length.
- Slow written production.
- Poor penmanship (e.g., poorly formed letters, incorrect use of capitalization, trouble with spacing, overly large handwriting).
- Inability to copy correctly from a book or the blackboard.
- Oral Language Skills
- Inability to concentrate on and to comprehend spoken language when presented rapidly.
- Difficulty in orally expressing concepts that they seem to understand.
- Difficulty speaking grammatically correct English.
- Difficulty following or having a conversation about an unfamiliar idea.
- Trouble telling a story in the proper sequence.
- Difficulty following oral or written directions.
- Mathematical Skills
- Incomplete mastery of basic facts (e.g. mathematical tables).
- Reversal of numbers (e.g., 123 to 321 or 231).
- Confuses operational symbols, especially + and x.
- Copies problems incorrectly from one line to another.
- Difficulty recalling the sequence of operational concepts.
- Difficulty comprehending word problems.
- Difficulty understanding key concepts and applications to aid problem solving.
- Organizational and Study Skills
- Difficulty with organization skills.
- Time management difficulties.
- Slow to start and to complete tasks.
- Repeated inability, on a day-to-day basis, to recall what has been taught.
- Lack of overall organization in taking notes.
- Difficulty interpreting charts and graphs.
- Inefficient use of library and reference materials.
- Difficulty preparing for and taking tests.
- Attention and Concentration
- Trouble focusing and sustaining attention on academic tasks.
- Fluctuating attention span during lectures.
- Easily distracted by outside stimuli.
- Difficulty juggling the demands of multiple tasks and becoming overloaded quickly.
- Hyperactivity and excessive movements may accompany the inability to focus attention.
- Social Skills
- Some adults with learning disabilities have social skills problems due to their inconsistent perceptual abilities. These individuals may be unable to detect the difference between sincere and sarcastic comments or be unable to recognize other subtle changes in tone of voice for the same reason that a person with a visual perceptual problem may have trouble discriminating between the letters "b" and "d". Difficulties in interpreting nonverbal messages may result in lowered self-esteem and may cause some adults with learning disabilities to have trouble meeting people or working cooperatively with others.
- Psychological Barriers
In addition to the above, the following characteristics of learning disabilities are included in a list published by Brown University:
- It's hard to begin writing a paper, because it takes so long to get focused and get thoughts organized.
- Feeling lazy, stupid, or ashamed because of the difficulty doing tasks which come so easily to others (low self-esteem).
- Feeling constantly behind regardless of the amount of effort applied or learning achieved.
- Feeling that your own work is infantile or crude or otherwise not as good as that of others, and that your output does not reflect the complexity of your thinking.
- Frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to read, write, spell, and speak correctly.
- Feeling as if you are "faking" your education: people say you are smart, but you don't genuinely feel this is true even though you may be getting good grades.
- Anxious about deadlines.
- Fear of filling out forms and applications and using the telephone.
- Isolation: fear of not being understood.
- Intensified self-consciousness and stress because of your other problems.
Due to their learning strategies, many LD individuals may demonstrate unusual aptitudes in mechanics, music, science, art, or athletics, especially in ways which others might describe as creative. Other characteristics include strengths in math that seem inconsistent with skills in other areas such as reading, strong spatial skills, or very poor spatial skills (Kaufman & Hook, 6). It may even seem that an LD student is a "paradoxical learner." This is a student who experiences great difficulties with remedial tasks but whose performance dramatically improves as the tasks become more difficult (Silverman, 39).