How to Determine the Difference Between Learning Disabilities and Delays

How to Determine the Difference Between Learning Disabilities and Delays
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While every child develops at his or her own pace, specific developmental milestones help healthcare providers and parents determine if children attain each one within normal limits, or outside the norm enough to cause concern. Learning disabilities and developmental delays are among the issues that can potentially prevent a child from reaching strategic points of growth.

If you notice something that causes you concern, observe your child and document your findings in order to discuss with your child’s child’s healthcare provider. Then you can make an informed decision about the most suitable plan of action to help your child.

Developmental Delays

A child’s development is multi-faceted. It includes physical growth, as well as acquisition of cognitive skills, motor skills, language skills, and social skills. Developmental milestones address these areas of a child’s development by indicating an acceptable age range during which your child should attain each milestone in each category.

Causes of Delays

Developmental delays outside the norm indicate ongoing, persistent problems that cannot simply disappear on their own. The University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) emphasizes that while not all causes behind delays are known, some causes may include the following:

  • Physical sources, such as poisoning from a toxic substance, or hearing loss due to chronic ear infections.
  • Complications during pregnancy or the birth process.
  • Genetic defects.
  • Degenerative or metabolic disorders.
  • Chronic medical illnesses, including asthma or diabetes.
  • Central nervous system infections.
  • Traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy.
  • Developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders, oppositional-defiant disorders, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADD/ADHD).

Symptoms of a Delay

How do you determine if your child has a developmental delay? The UMHS’s website provides some detailed information about signs and symptoms your child may exhibit that would be cause for concern:

  • Difficulty or delay in attaining gross motor skills (sitting, crawling, standing, walking) or fine motor skills (using hands to eat, draw, play). For example, between the ages of six months to one year, most babies are able to sit, crawl, and stand with support. Between one year to 18 months old, most toddlers walk unassisted, pull off clothes, and scribble with crayons.
  • Absence of, or inappropriate, social interaction demonstrated through physical gestures such as smiling, poor eye contact, inability to properly express emotions, difficulty paying attention, disruptive behavior, and similar actions. For example, skills such as showing affection and recognizing family members and other familiar people, and exhibiting separation anxiety from parents, typically occur by the age of one year.
  • Speech and language delays, including slow acquisition of receptive and/or expressive communication skills. Most children have acquired some communication skills by the age of one year as they try to mimic what they hear, and speak their first words. Between 18 months to two years of age, most children’s vocabulary explodes from a dozen to several hundred words.
  • Delay in, or impaired, cognitive skills, including thinking, understanding, reasoning, problem-solving, and remembering. While the age range varies, most children demonstrate early cognitive skills by the age of one year. For example, they copy sounds and actions, and figure out how to get what they want, such as crawling toward a toy.

If you observe any of these delays in your child, be sure to discuss them with your child’s healthcare provider.

Learning Disabilities

Learning involves processing information in an orderly and understandable fashion. Children with learning disabilities struggle with making connections between incoming information, and comprehension and organization of that information. The neurological basis behind learning disabilities disrupts a child’s ability to fully understand how to perform basic skills such as reading, calculating, writing, communicating, and organizing data as he or she receives it.

Categories of Learning Disabilities

_LD Online,_a learning disabilities website emphasizes that developmental disorders may co-exist with learning disabilities, but are not the same. Common developmental delays that tend to afflict children who also have learning disabilities include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADD/ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, and other mental health or behavioral disorders.

LD Online offers insight into several categories of learning disabilities:

  • Dyslexia: language-based, affecting a child’s ability to understand written words, leading to difficulty reading. Signs of dyslexia include difficulty learning letters and sounds, as well as difficulty spelling and organizing written language.
  • Dyscalculia: number-based, affecting a child’s ability to understand math concepts and problem-solving. A child with dyscalculia struggles to read numbers or recall sequences of numbers, and has difficulty computing or performing math functions. Another sign of dyscalculia is lack of comprehension about time and difficulty keeping organized with a schedule.
  • Dysgraphia: writing-based, affecting a child’s ability to form letters and figures to write properly. This learning disability typically manifests in a child’s clenched or awkward grip on a writing utensil, resulting in illegible handwriting, as well as incomplete or omitted words.
  • Auditory or Visual Processing Disorders: sensory problems with no physiological basis, causing a child to have difficulty understanding language he or she hears or sees. An example of an auditory processing disorder is difficulty in understanding, differentiating, writing, and speaking individual sounds in words. A visual processing disorder can include an inability to discriminate the different shapes in letters, such as the difference between an “m” and an “n,” or distinguish objects from their background, such as pictures of dishes on a table.
  • Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD or NLD): neurological problems affecting a child’s ability to distinguish nonverbal cues, including tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and body language, along with difficulties with motor coordination, memory recall, and organizing information. Children with NVLD often have above average language skills, but tend to talk at an “adult” level, sometimes about inappropriate subjects in an inappropriate setting, as they lack self-awareness or boundaries. These children also exhibit clumsiness, as they struggle with coordination of motor skills.

According to LD Online, the most common learning disabilities affect reading and language skills, with reading disabilities afflicting as many as 80 percent of all students.