Learning Disabilities May Impact Health Over a Lifetime

My 7-year-old son profoundly understood the brilliant storm in his brain long before a child psychologist would give his learning disorder a four-letter label.

He launched into an elaborate analogy of how a day in first grade put his mind into overdrive.  

“The ‘workers in my mind’ are so disorganized, they don’t know what to do. It’s like the boss of my brain is asleep,” he told me one night before bed, buried under his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle blanket.

child writing with pencil

From his safe, under-the-covers confessional, he bravely and tearfully shared his struggles in first grade: listening and focusing were a challenge, he had feelings of loneliness and frustration and he struggled to multi-task. All those challenges were part of his recent diagnosis of ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

My son is among 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. struggling with issues related to reading, math, focus and organization, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

My heart sank the moment we heard those four letters, A-D-H-D, with the gravity of the long road ahead sinking in. I knew learning disabilities are not curable and are considered lifelong challenges to overcome, affecting adults in college and in the workforce, as well. Still, I felt strangely relieved, because the diagnosis is also what we long suspected, and now as parents we finally had a defined path in which we could advocate for his well-being, both with his health providers and at school.

While ADHD doesn’t qualify as a specific learning disability in school districts, it can interfere with the ability to learn. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 2.3 million students are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities with an estimated 35% of all students receiving special education services.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America shares the most common specific learning disabilities.

Dyslexia is one of the most common forms of learning disabilities. Dyslexia is a language-based disorder that affects reading, writing, spelling, and often handwriting. 

Dyscalculia is a disorder that specifically affects math capabilities, from an inability to order numbers correctly to trouble performing basic math calculations.

Dysgraphia is related to the physical act of writing. Students often cannot hold a pencil correctly, have trouble organizing their thoughts coherently and can struggle with basic sentence structure and grammatical awareness.

Dyspraxia is a motor skills disability that can also impact on academic success because it affects the planning and coordination of muscles. People with dyspraxia may also struggle with gait, have trouble using a pencil or paintbrush, experience difficulties playing a musical instrument, and/or performing coordinated movements in sports.

Other types of learning disabilities include Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Language Processing Disorder (LPD), Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (NVLD), and Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit.  

Signs of learning struggles

Looking back, we began to notice signs of our son’s struggles even when he was a toddler. He was hyperactive, prone to huge emotional outbursts, and he had trouble with listening and transitions. At that time, I didn’t know if he was just a challenging child or if this behavior was an indicator of something more.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines learning disabilities as disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements or direct attention. Although learning disabilities occur in very young children, the disorders are usually not recognized until the child reaches school age. 

Each learning disability has its own signs — and a person with a particular disability may not have all of the signs of that disability. According to Mayo Clinic and National Institutes of Health, symptoms of a learning disability may include:

  • Lack of mastery of skills in reading, spelling, writing or math at or near expected age and grade levels
  • Difficulty understanding and following instructions 
  • Trouble recalling conversations and paying attention
  • Clumsiness, lack of coordination in walking, sports or skills such as holding a pencil
  • Easily lose or misplace homework, schoolbooks or other items
  • Difficulty understanding the concept of time
  • Resistance of homework or activities that involve reading, writing or math, or incomplete homework assignments without significant help 
  • Defiance, hostility or excessive emotional reactions at school or other settings while doing academic activities, such as homework or reading 
  • Acting out, impulsiveness 
  • Difficulty staying focused, easily distracted 
  • Problems dealing with changes in schedule or situation

Learning disabilities and health impacts

For our own child, ADHD would come with a coexisting diagnosis — anxiety. The Learning Disabilities Association of America reports a higher risk of mental health issues for individuals with learning disabilities, because of school failure and low self-esteem.

A learning disability may also make it hard to understand written health information, follow a doctor’s directions or take the proper amount of medication, according to the National Institutes of Health. Sometimes the disorders may lead to a poor understanding of the benefits of healthier behaviors and of health risks, which can result in unhealthy behaviors and increased risk of disease.

“It impacts how the person receives messages and how they process messages. At times people will have difficulty following auditory instructions. It’s not necessarily evident that a person that has a reading disability,” said Steve Rush, director of UnitedHealth Group’s Health Literacy Innovations Program. “Low health literacy is a hidden disability and it’s important to remember just because a person can speak well, doesn’t mean they process well.”

Limited health literacy may include problems communicating and understanding conversations in person or on the phone, and may also bring barriers with written language or even digitally.

“Consider a person who has a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) in reading,” said Dr. Robin Blitz, medical director with UnitedHealthcare Special Needs Initiative. “That person may not be able to read and understand the instructions on the prescription bottle or the instructions to prepare for a procedure. A person with a SLD in written expression may have difficulty filling out a new patient form in the doctor’s office. A person with a SLD in math may have difficulty with measurements of medication to give their child, when the instructions on the bottle are by a child’s weight.”

Some patients may even have trouble identifying when they are ill or when they are experiencing a side effect to a medication, or with describing symptoms to their healthcare providers.

Treatments for learning disabilities

Our family plugged into mental health resources and therapy options early. When our son was 2 years old, we sought out evaluations for some of his behaviors. 

If your child’s teacher or physician suspects a learning disability, Mayo Clinic recommends early intervention as essential because the problem can snowball. The sooner learning disabilities are detected, the better, so the child can start receiving the educational help he or she needs.

“At the pediatrician’s office, the parent should also bring up concerns. The pediatrician can refer for certain assessments or perform some in the office, such as a hearing and vision exam. The pediatrician may also order a speech/language evaluation, or an occupational or physical therapy session, depending on what the child needs. The pediatrician can also evaluate for sleep problems which can affect a child’s learning, attention and behavior,” Dr. Blitz said.

Blitz is also a board-certified Developmental-Behavioral pediatrician and recommends parents with concerns also request, in writing, an evaluation to assess for learning disabilities at school.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), eligibility for special education is considered across 13 disability categories. Each public school child who receives special education must have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, where teachers, parents, school administrators embark on an evaluation process, and if eligible, work together to create a plan to meet the student’s unique needs.

Beyond school years, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development also has resources for managing a learning disability in adulthood.

Our son’s journey still begins, but we continue to advocate — at school, in therapy and with his pediatrician — to surround him with the tools he needs to succeed.

My hope is to also arm him with the ability to advocate for his own health and happiness, to take the burden off those stressed out “workers in his brain” so they, and he, can grow up with reassurance, no longer feeling lost and alone.

Lindsey Seavert is a senior content writer for the UnitedHealthcare Newsroom and a mother of two young children. She spent almost two decades as a broadcast reporter before joining UHC in early 2019.