Mental Retardation/Learning Disability

Learning Disability/Intellectual Disability is a term used when a person has certain limitations in mental functioning and in skills such as communicating, taking care of himself or herself, and social skills. These limitations will cause a child to learn and develop more slowly than a typical child. Children with learning disability may take longer to learn to speak, walk, and take care of their personal needs such as dressing or eating. They are likely to have trouble learning in school. They will learn, but it will take them longer. There may be some things they cannot learn.

What Causes Learning Disability?

Doctors have found many causes of learning disability. The most common are:

  • Genetic conditions: Sometimes learning disability is caused by abnormal genes inherited from parents, errors when genes combine, or other reasons. Examples of genetic conditions are Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and phenylketonuria (PKU).
  • Problems during pregnancy: Learning disability can result when the baby does not develop inside the mother properly. For example, there may be a problem with the way the baby's cells divide as it grows. A woman who drinks alcohol or gets an infection like rubella during pregnancy may also have a baby with learning disability.
  • Problems at birth: If a baby has problems during labor and birth, such as not getting enough oxygen, he or she may have learning disability.
  • Health problems: Diseases like whooping cough, the measles, or meningitis can cause learning disability. It can also be caused by extreme malnutrition (not eating right), not getting enough medical care, or by being exposed to poisons like lead or mercury.

Learning disability is not a disease. You can't catch learning disability from anyone. It  is also not a type of mental illness, like depression. There is no cure for learning disability. However, most children with learning disability can learn to do many things. It just takes them more time and effort than other children.

How is Learning Disability Diagnosed?

Learning Disability is diagnosed by looking at two main things. These are:

  • the ability of a person's brain to learn, think, solve problems, and make sense of the world (called IQ or intellectual functioning); and
  • whether the person has the skills he or she needs to live independently (called adaptive behavior, or adaptive functioning).

Intellectual functioning, or IQ, is usually measured by a test called an IQ test. The average score is 100. People scoring below 70 to 75 are thought to have learning disability. To measure adaptive behavior, professionals look at what a child can do in comparison to other children of his or her age. Certain skills are important to adaptive behavior. These are:

  • daily living skills, such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and feeding one's self;
  • communication skills, such as understanding what is said and being able to answer;
  • social skills with peers, family members, adults, and others.

To diagnose learning disability, professionals look at the person's mental abilities (IQ) and his or her adaptive skills. Providing services to help individuals with learning disability has led to a new understanding of how we define learning disability. After the initial diagnosis of learning disability is made, we look at a person's strengths and weaknesses. We also look at how much support or help the person needs to get along at home, in school, and in the community. This approach gives a realistic picture of each individual. It also recognizes that the "picture" can change. As the person grows and learns, his or her ability to get along in the world grows as well.

What Are the Signs of Learning Disability?

There are many signs of learning disability. For example, children with learning disability may:

  • sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children;
  • learn to talk later, or have trouble speaking,
  • find it hard to remember things,
  • do not know how to pay for things,
  • have trouble understanding social rules,
  • have trouble seeing the consequences of their actions,
  • have trouble solving problems, and/or
  • have trouble thinking logically.

About 87% of people with learning disability will only be a little slower than average in learning new information and skills. When they are children, their limitations may not be obvious. They may not even be diagnosed as having learning disability until they get to school. As they become adults, many people with mild disability can live independently. Other people may not even consider them as having learning disability.

The remaining 13% of people with learning disability score below 50 on IQ tests. These people will have more difficulty in school, at home, and in the community. A person with more learning disability will need more intensive support in his or her entire life. Every child with learning disability is able to learn, develop, and grow. With help, all children with learning disability can lead a fulfilling life.


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