Learning disabilities are a frustrating part of life for many children and teens. All too often, however, these differences in information processing can get confused with mental health conditions. They can also mask, coexist with, or contribute to mental health issues.
The result: Children may not get the help they need in either area, leading to years of struggle that can extend into adulthood, says Aleksandra Krunic, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Child and Adult Clinical Psychiatry Center in Huntington, New York.
Like all things related to your child’s health, learning disabilities don’t exist in a vacuum, Dr. Krunic says. “Before we go on to look at any psychiatric problems, we have to understand what is developmentally happening with them. That includes learning disabilities.”
What Are Learning Disabilities?
A specific learning disability (SLD) is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, which can result in difficulties listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Learning disabilities are common among children and teens. Of the 7 million students who receive special education services in American public schools, 33 percent have an SLD, according to the NCES.
It’s important to know that a learning disability is not the same thing as lacking intelligence or motivation. In fact, a child may be very smart or hardworking, but because their brain processes words, numbers, or visual cues differently, learning can be a challenge.
It’s also important to know that learning disabilities aren’t the only reason a child may have difficulties learning. For example, hearing impairment (such as deafness), visual impairment (such as blindness), speech impairment (such as stuttering), and intellectual disability (such as Down syndrome) can also cause learning challenges—but they’re different from SLDs.
Types of Learning Disabilities
You may already be aware of dyslexia, which is a learning disability that affects reading and language-based processing skills. But there are actually five SLDs you should know, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDAA).
Children with dyscalculia may have difficulty with counting, learning numbers, understanding math facts, comprehending math symbols, or telling time.
This learning disability results in difficulties with handwriting. Children’s writing may be hard to read, and words may be poorly spaced or oddly sized. Children with dysgraphia may also find it difficult to write and think at the same time.
This language-based learning disability can affect reading fluency, or how well you can read, and reading comprehension, or how well you can understand what you’re reading. Children with dyslexia may struggle with spelling, writing, and understanding phonetics, or the sounds that letters and words make.
Oral or Written Language Disorder and Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit
Children with this learning disorder may have difficulty with semantics, or word meaning, and syntactics, or how word order changes meaning.
Nonverbal Learning Disability
Children with nonverbal learning disability (NLD or NVLD) have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions or body language. They may also have weak visual-spatial or social skills but fine verbal or language skills.
Learning Disabilities and Related Disorders
It’s possible for your child to have a learning disability and a different type of health disorder at the same time. When this occurs, it’s known as a comorbidity.
It can also be hard for the average person to tell the difference between a learning disability and a mental health condition, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “Very often you might have undiagnosed learning disorders that present in such a way that someone can think it’s a mental illness or psychiatric problem,” Dr. Krunic says.
Children with ADHD have problems maintaining focus. Up to 45 percent of children with ADHD also have a learning disability, according to a study in the Journal of Learning Disabilities.
This disorder can cause problems with muscle control and coordination. It can affect gross motor skills, such as maintaining balance, as well as fine motor skills, such as using your hands to grasp objects. Dyspraxia often exists along with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or ADHD, according to the LDAA.
The ability to plan, organize, understand concepts, manage time, and make decisions are all aspects of executive function. Children with learning disabilities or ADHD also often have problems with executive function.
Learning Disabilities and Mental Health Issues
A learning disability isn’t the same thing as a mental health issue—but they can be closely related. For children and adults alike, a delay in identifying a learning disability can increase the risk for anxiety and depression, according to Dr. Krunic.
“A child can develop a sense of inadequacy because all their academic efforts aren’t bringing any results,” Dr. Krunic says.
In some cases, a child may internalize that feeling of failure, leading to depression. The good news: “Many of these mild cases of depression will clear if you address any underlying problems with learning,” she says.
In other cases, a child might externalize that feeling of failure by disrupting class, skipping school, or using drugs or alcohol, she adds. Of course, these destructive behaviors can make learning even harder.
What you can do: If you spot any mental health issues in your child or your teen tells you they’re having a hard time in school, check in with their primary care doctor or mental health clinician.
How Medications Can Help
Depending on your child’s condition, medication may help—as long as it’s recommended appropriately and by a clinician who is used to working with your child’s age group, Dr. Krunic says. A clinician who specializes in pediatrics, for example, will be in the best position to understand a child’s health and experience.
“Medications for ADHD have excellent efficacy,” Dr. Krunic says. By helping your child improve focus issues related to ADHD, you’ll help your child take advantage of any educational services for learning disabilities.
Similarly, if your child develops depression or anxiety, treating the depression or anxiety can help them feel better and accept academic support, she says.
If your child’s clinician recommends mental health medication, ask if pharmacogenetic testing (PGx) can help.
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