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From Chapter 2: What Causes Learning Disabilities?
Even though students with learning disabilities are by far the largest and the fastest-growing special-needs group in the American school population, parents cannot always get clear answers to their most urgent questions when a learning problem is identified: "How did this happen?" "What went wrong?" "Can children outgrow learning disabilities?" "Is there a cure?"
These questions can be difficult to answer, because multiple factors contribute to learning disabilities. In recent years, the relative importance of these causes has become a matter of increasing research and debate. In some of the newest studies, investigators have used sophisticated imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to watch living brains at work, and they have compared structures and activity levels in the brains of normal subjects and subjects with learning problems. In other areas of research, scientists have autopsied the brains of deceased persons with learning disabilities looking for anatomical differences, and geneticists have been searching for (and finding) evidence that some kinds of learning disability are inherited.
But while this research is producing more and more valuable information about the intricate structures and complex workings of the human brain, it is not always easy to apply this information to an individual. In addition, irregularities in brain function tell only part of the story. Children's intellectual development is also heavily influenced by their family, school, and community environments. While learning disabilities are assumed to have a biological basis, it is often the child's environment that determines the severity of the disability's impact. Science has not yet provided much in the way of medical treatment for learning disabilities, but long experience has shown that modifying the environment can make a remarkable difference in a child's educational progress. This means that even though learning disabilities are regarded as permanent conditions, they can be improved dramatically by making changes at home and in the child's educational program.
The biological factors contributing to learning disabilities can be divided into four general categories: brain injury, errors in brain development, neurochemical imbalances, and heredity. In this chapter we will review each of these separately, and discuss how a variety of environmental factors also influence learning and development. Since there are no definitive neurological tests for learning disabilities, determining the cause of a given student's learning problems is now largely a matter of informed guesswork. When a child's home and school situations are examined and a detailed history is taken, one or more factors discussed in this chapter often stand out. It must also be admitted, however, that sometimes the only honest answer to the question "Why does my child have a learning disability?" is "We don't know for sure." We trust that ongoing research in this rapidly developing field will eventually provide us with new ways of evaluating these disabilities and pinpointing the source of individual learning problems.
For many years it was assumed that all students with learning disabilities had experienced some kind of brain damage. Today we know that most children with learning disabilities have no history of brain injury. Even when they do, it is not always certain that this is the source of their academic difficulties. Research has shown, for example, that head injuries are almost as common among typical achievers as they are among children having trouble in school. One investigator estimates that as many as 20 percent of all children suffer a serious insult to the brain by age six, yet most of these children do not develop learning problems.
Efforts to link a child's learning disabilities to brain damage caused by birth complications have also failed to find a conclusive connection. These factors are associated with some cases of learning disabilities, but they can also be found in the histories of typical and high achievers. A study of seven- to fifteen-year-olds, for example, found that 23 percent of the students reading a year or two behind grade level had a history of birth difficulties. A similar background, though, was found for 19 percent of the students reading a year or more ahead of grade level — hardly a convincing correlation!
There is no doubt, however, that some children's learning disabilities do arise from injuries to the brain. Among the injury types associated with learning disabilities are accidents, brain hemorrhages and tumors, illnesses such as encephalitis and meningitis, untreated glandular disorders in infancy, and infant hypoglycemia. Malnutrition and exposure to toxic chemicals (such as lead or pesticides) have also been shown to cause brain damage leading to learning problems. Children who receive radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer sometimes develop learning disabilities, especially if radiation has been applied to the skull. Events that cause the brain to be deprived of oxygen can result in irreversible brain damage in a relatively short time; incidents involving choking, suffocation, drowning, smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide, poisoning, and some birth complications fall in this category.
Brain injuries can also occur before birth. It is well known that when certain illnesses occur during pregnancy — diabetes, kidney disease, and measles among them — brain damage to the fetus is sometimes the sad result. Prenatal exposure to drugs (alcohol, nicotine, and some prescription medications as well as "street" drugs) has been clearly associated with a variety of learning difficulties, including cognitive delays, attention deficits, hyperactivity, and memory problems. As we will discuss in the next section, the developing nervous system of a fetus is so fragile that even relatively minor insults can have significant lasting effects. The nervous systems of premature infants are also vulnerable to injury, and a significantly higher incidence of prematurity is found among children who have academic and behavioral problems.
Copyright © 1997 by Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick
PART I: UNDERSTANDING LEARNING DISABILITIES
1. What Are Learning Disabilities?
2. What Causes Learning Disabilities?
3. Basic Types of Learning Disability
PART II: HOW ARE LEARNING DISABILITIES IDENTIFIED?
4. Warning Signs at Home and at School
5. The Learning Disabilities Evaluation
6. Becoming an Expert on Your Child
PART III: AN APPROPRIATE EDUCATION
7. Becoming an Education Activist
8. Developing an Effective Educational Program
9. The ABCs of Success in School
PART IV: A QUALITY LIFE
10. Social and Emotional Growth
11. Strategies for Promoting Personal Success
12. Looking Forward to the Future
A. Benchmarks of Normal Development
B. Common Assessment Measures
C. The Development of Reading, Writing, and Math Skills
D. Resource List
Posted March 10, 2000
This is book is so concise and informative--from child to adult--while still being readable without a PhD. Every mother with an LD child should read it. My 14 year old daughter was just diagnosed with unusual/unlikely LD's. You will recognize your child somewhere between the covers of this book. In the middle of a lonely night while everyone was asleep, I cried when I saw my child's life/actions in this book (and we had not recognized the signs before). I laughed with relief when I found I was not alone in this abyss and there are things that CAN be done. So many books with undecipherable information. So few books to tell you need the info you want. Everything is here. It has given me incentive for a game plan.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.