Medical Condition or Learning Difference?

Untangling Symptoms With Proper Diagnosis

Medical Condition or Learning Difference?

Untangling Symptoms With Proper Diagnosis

Table of Contents

What Are Learning Differences?

A learning difference is a neurological condition that impacts the way that someone learns. It has to do with how information is received and processed in the brain, and has nothing to do with natural intelligence or motivation.1 Some of the main learning differences include:

Dyslexia

This is a language-based learning difference where there is trouble with letter and word recognition. There are also issues with understanding words and ideas, reading speed and fluency, and vocabulary.1

Dyscalculia

A number-based learning difference where individuals have trouble remembering sequences of numbers, using math functions, organization numbers, operation signs, counting, and telling time.1

Dysgraphia

A writing-based learning disability where individuals have trouble with writing neatness, legible handwriting, copying letters and words, spelling, and organizing their thoughts.1

Auditory Processing Disorders

These disorders cause problems with understanding auditory language, such as being able to distinguish subtle differences in sounds.1

Visual Processing Disorders

These disorders can include visual problems such as distinguishing between shapes (such as confusing m and n), reversing numbers, and poor hand-eye coordination.1

Non-Verbal Learning Disorders

Disorders that pose difficulties with nonverbal language such as tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, body language, motor coordination, and memory recall.1

Epilepsy or Learning Difference?

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder that is characterized by recurring and unprovoked seizures. It is associated with structural or biochemical brain abnormalities.2 In the U.S. 3.4 million people have epilepsy.2

How Can Epilepsy Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Repetitive movements without a purpose, such as lip-smacking or fiddling with clothing, and confusion can be parts of having a seizure.3 These symptoms are also typically associated with learning disabilities, so it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between a seizure and symptoms of a learning disability.3 Epilepsy also tends to be more common in individuals with learning disabilities than the general population; approximately 20% of people with epilepsy also have a learning disability.3

How Can Epilepsy Make Learning Differences Worse?

Due to the similarity in epilepsy symptoms and the symptoms of certain learning differences, epilepsy can worsen learning difficulties. The medications used for epilepsy can also cause side effects, such as poor attention, restlessness, slow or unsteady movements, and having problems with vision; which can also worsen learning differences. For people with learning disabilities and seizures, seizures may be more frequent, longer, and may include multiple types of seizures.

What Learning Differences Are Associated With Epilepsy?

People with epilepsy are at risk of having attention problems, cognitive weaknesses, difficulty with memory or problem-solving, and other learning differences. Some research has shown that dyslexia, which is a learning disability that affects reading and language processing skills, is more frequent in individuals with epilepsy.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions For Children With Epilepsy?

For many children with epilepsy, anti-epileptic drugs are necessary to prevent seizures. Since these medications can make learning differences worse, parents and teachers need to work together with children to help them have the most successful learning environment. It is important to work with children on learning skills, socialization, and communication and this requires a collaborative approach with parents, doctors, and educators.

Hearing Impairment or Learning Disability?

What Are Hearing Impairments?

Hearing impairments occur when there is damage to a part of the ear, making it difficult to hear or otherwise distorting hearing. There are five types of hearing impairments:4

  • Conductive hearing loss which results in sounds seeming quieter than they are and may sometimes require medications or surgery.4
  • Sensorineural hearing loss which causes trouble hearing clearly, understanding speech, and interpreting sounds.4
  • Auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder causes the transmission of sound from the inner ear to the brain to be disorganized.4
  • Mixed hearing loss occurs when you have both conductive and sensorineural hearing problems.4
  • Central hearing loss occurs when the cochlea is working correctly but other parts of the brain are not.4

How Can Hearing Impairments Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Hearing impairments that go untreated can make it more difficult to distinguish between hearing impairment and a learning difference. Because hearing loss can cause delays in the development of speech and language, which can lead to poor school performance, children with hearing loss may be misidentified as having learning differences.

How Can Hearing Impairments Make Learning Differences Worse?

Hearing impairments that go untreated can make it more difficult for students to understand what is being communicated to them, learn language skills, writing, and reading; which can cause a student to struggle to learn and exacerbate existing conditions.

What Learning Differences Are Associated With Hearing Impairments?

Hearing and learning are strongly connected. According to the CDC, about 15% of children ages 6-19 have hearing loss, which can have a big impact on academic performance.5 Research shows that between 25%-35% of children with hearing loss are at risk of failing at least one grade.5 Children with hearing impairments struggling with language-related learning differences the most.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions For Children With Hearing Impairments?

Hearing aids or cochlear implants can be very useful for children to help with language development and hearing clearly. Teachers can also help students who have hearing impairments by making sure to accommodate them. A simple way to help as a teacher is to speak clearly in the direction of the child as this helps the child read your lips and better understand. Using technology like a classroom mic, can also help all students hear more clearly and pay attention better in class.

Visual Impairment or Learning Difference?

What Are Visual Impairments?

Visual impairment is a loss of vision that cannot be corrected with glasses.6 Eye disorders, trauma, and brain nerve disorders can all lead to visual impairments.6 Types of visual impairments include:6

  • Amblyopia: also known as lazy eye which is decreased vision in one or both eyes. The brain will shut off one eye to favor the eye with better vision.
  • Astigmatism: A refractive error characterized by the eyes inability to focus sharply.
  • Cataract: A pathologic condition characterized by opacity or cloudiness in the eyes.
  • Color Blindness: The inability to discriminate between colors or seeing colors differently than most other people.
  • Glaucoma: A pathologic condition characterized by increased pressure that causes damage to the optic nerve and retinal nerve fibers.
  • Hyperopia (Farsightedness): A refractive error where people can see clearly in the distance but have blurry close up vision.
  • Myopia (Nearsightedness): A refractive error where people can see close-up objects but their distance vision is blurry.
  • Nystagmus: A functional defect characterized by involuntary and rhythmic eye movements.

How Can Visual Impairments Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Because visual impairments can have a big impact on education and learning, it can be hard to determine whether a child is struggling academically due to visual impairment or a learning disability. Visual impairments can make learning differences worse and can have many similar symptoms to learning disabilities, such as trouble with language, reading, motor skills, and cognitive development.

How Can Visual Impairments Make Learning Differences Worse?

Visual impairments can cause problems with social, motor, language, and cognitive development. Visual impairments can cause children to miss punctuation due to low acuity, have slower reading rates, and have problems reading and maintaining their place on the page. They may also have trouble seeing the board and be less motivated to explore their environment. Visual impairments can also impact social life, resulting in the child being less likely to initiate social interaction, less likely to play with physical objects, or take part in activities that require vision and hand-eye coordination (e.g., sports, music, art).

What Learning Differences Are Associated With Visual Impairments?

Children with visual impairments may struggle with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and visual processing disorders.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions For Children With Visual Impairments?

Children with visual impairments may need various tools and devices to help them learn in the classroom such as glasses, audiobooks, or handheld magnifiers. All students should have access to the same textbooks and instructional materials as their peers. This might include braille and/or recorded media and a focus on auditory learning rather than visual learning. This could also include materials with larger print text or the use of optical devices to help students access the materials that they need. This could also include assistive technology such as computers, computer software, braille translation software, a screen reader that converts print into audible speech, talking calculators, and more.

Mobility Impairment or Learning Disability?

What Are Mobility Impairments?

Mobility impairments are characterized by an inability to use one or more of your extremities, or a lack of strength causing you to not be able to walk, hold, or lift objects. It refers to a reduced capacity for physical movement. People who have mobility impairments may use wheelchairs, crutches, or walkers.

How Can Mobility Impairments Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

For children who have mobility impairments and learning difficulties, their learning difficulties might be overlooked when the child is struggling at school. It might be easy to automatically assume that mobility impairment is causing barriers, when there may be a co-existing learning disability.

How Can Mobility Impairments Make Learning Differences Worse?

Physical limitations can make it difficult for children to take part in any physical activities. Just from getting to school, to navigating stairs and other physical barriers, children with mobility impairments face numerous challenges throughout the day. They may struggle in class to sit in a chair, to hold a pencil or paper, to read and write, to play with or hold objects, and to take part in physical activities such as sports, drama, art class.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions For Children With Mobility Impairments?

Children who struggle with mobility impairments may need significant accommodations to help them to thrive in the academic environment. These include:

Mental Health Disorder or Learning Difference?

How Can Mental Health Disorders Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Learning differences can negatively impact a child’s mental health. From feeling like they are different than other kids to struggling with the work, and potentially being made fun of, it is difficult to grow up with a learning difference. No child expects to go to school and struggle while it seems to be working for other students. The reality is that every child learns differently, whether or not they have a learning difference; everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. That being said, learning differences can lead to lower self-esteem and insecurity. For children already struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, a learning disability can exacerbate the situation.

How Can Mental Health Disorders Make Learning Differences Worse?

With many learning differences, students will have trouble with communication and understanding others. This can be made worse when a child is also struggling with a mental health disorder, creating yet another barrier to learning. Mental health outcomes can become worse when children feel like they are failing at school, feel different than other students, are made fun of, and feel as though they can’t keep up with mainstream learning. This does not make your child unintelligent or unmotivated, they just need a different learning environment to thrive.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions For Children With Mental Health Disorders?

Children with mental health disorders and learning disabilities will need a comprehensive medical plan which may include medication and counseling. They will also need an individualized education plan where their needs and goals are discussed, and they are provided with the necessary tools and resources to succeed.

Is Autism a Learning Disability?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that causes challenges with social interactions, communication, and behavior. It is not a learning difference, but it can make learning challenging.

How Autism Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Children with autism may struggle with many of the same things that children with learning differences struggle with such as verbal communication and language or holding a pencil and paper.

If an autism spectrum disorder hasn’t been diagnosed, it may be easy to label a child with multiple learning differences. All the struggles may relate to the autism spectrum disorder and have nothing to do with a learning disability.

On the other hand, some autistic children are often very high performing in academic areas such as math, science, art, and music. They may also have an excellent memory, be able to learn things in extreme detail, and flourish with visual and auditory learning. These potential strengths can mask learning disabilities.

How Can Autism Make Learning Differences Worse?

Children with autism may struggle with social interaction, too much sensory stimulation, organization, and schedules, or holding a pencil and paper for writing. This can pose challenges to learning.

What Learning Differences Are Associated With ASD?

Children with autism are most likely to struggle with non-verbal processing disorders and dysgraphia.

What Are Some Ways to Help Children With Autism Succeed?

  • Clearly established routines
  • Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones for noisy environments
  • Visual schedules
  • Visual or written instructions rather than auditory instructions
  • Designation quiet areas
  • Assistive technology such as computers and assistive software
  • Designated note takers
  • An established individualized education plan (IEP)

Communication Problem or Learning Disability?

There are two main types of language disorders: receptive language disorders and expressive language disorders.7 An expressive language disorder occurs when a child has a hard time getting their message or meaning across to other people.7 A reception language disorder is when a child has a hard time understanding and processing the messages and information received from others.7

To diagnose language disorders in children, they must have a comprehensive assessment to identify the specific delay and disorder.7 A comprehensive assessment may include interviews with parents, unstructured playtime to see how that child uses language in their natural environment, and standardized tests.7

How Can Language Differences Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Language disorders have very similar symptoms to learning disabilities which can make them hard to distinguish and diagnose. Problems with language and communication are typical in learning differences; however, the treatment for both is different and therefore needs to be distinguished.

How Can Language Differences Make Learning Differences Worse?

A child with a language processing disorder will have an even more difficult time academically if they also struggling with other learning differences. An inability to communicate or understand others poses a big barrier to learning and understanding.

What Learning Differences Are Associated With Communication Problems?

Children with language processing disorders may struggle most with dyslexia and auditory processing disorders.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions?

Children with language disorders may need medication, counseling, and extra tools and resources for educational success.

Sensory Processing Disorder or Learning Difference?

What Are Sensory Processing Disorders?

A sensory processing disorder (formerly called sensory integration disorder) is a condition where the brain has trouble responding to information that is obtained through the senses. Symptoms include:

  • Being oversensitive to environmental stimuli (common sounds, the touch of a shirt, etc.)
  • Being uncoordinated
  • Bumping into things
  • Being unable to identify where your limbs are in relation to space
  • Being unable to engage in conversation
  • Not handing change well
  • Having trouble holding items or objects

What Learning Differences Are Associated With Sensory Processing Disorders?

Due to the similarities in symptoms, children with sensory integration disorders are most likely to struggle with non-verbal learning that has to do with communication, expression, understanding, spatial awareness, and social interactions.

How Can Sensory Processing Disorders Make Learning Differences Harder to Diagnose?

Non-verbal learning disorders and sensory processing disorders affect emotional recognition and expression, social interaction, spatial conceptions, and attention. For this reason, it can be difficult to distinguish between a sensory processing disorder and a learning disability.

How Can Sensory Processing Disorders Make Learning Differences Worse?

Children who have sensory integration disorders may struggle in an academic setting more than the average child. The classroom environment typically involves a lot of sensory stimuli: lots of sounds, colors, and visuals, as well as a lot of different materials and activities, smells, and more. A child with a sensory integration disorder and a learning disability faces larger barriers to learning.

What Are Some Helpful Interventions?

Because sensory processing disorders do not have widely accepted diagnostic criteria, they can be harder to treat. Despite this, occupational therapists will often work with children who have sensory processing disorders in helping them to do activities that they struggle with and helping them to get used to sensory stimulations that they can’t tolerate.7 This works by challenging children through sensory integration to get them used to new things and the way they interact with the environment.

Diagnosing a Learning Difference or Medical Condition

Learning Differences

Learning differences can be diagnosed by various health professionals: clinical psychologists, school psychologists, educational psychologists, and neuropsychologists. To diagnose a learning difference, it is important for professionals to do educational assessments and to understand how the student navigates school and learning. A learning difference diagnosis can help a child gain access to the tools and resources they need to succeed.

Physical Impairments

Physical impairments can be diagnosed by a physician who will typically run laboratory tests and other clinical tests to determine the type and level of impairment.

Mental Disorders

Mental disorders are diagnosed by psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists, and physicians. Diagnostic criteria as well as various testing are done to determine such diagnoses.