How can I tell if my son has a learning disability?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I think my son may have a learning disability. How can I tell if there really is a problem?

DEAR READER:

Most kids have some difficulty in school at one time or another, and usually it’s nothing to worry about. Sometimes, though, it can be a sign of a learning disability.

“Learning disability” is a broad term that can cover different types of problems. A child with a learning disability may have a hard time receiving, organizing, remembering or using information. The most common learning disability is trouble with reading. But some children may have trouble with math, with understanding the spoken word or with abstract ideas.

Here are some possible warning signs of learning disabilities in preschoolers and young children:

PRESCHOOLERS (AGES 3 TO 4)

  • Late talking. Most kids start speaking in short phrases by 2 years. By age 3, most preschoolers have a vocabulary of 500 or more words, which they use to form three- or four-word sentences.
  • Slow to learn words. Most kids are picking up and speaking single words by 15 to 18 months.
  • Problems pronouncing words. Preschoolers generally speak clearly enough for strangers to understand most of what they are saying.
  • Trouble remembering colors, numbers or letters.
  • Trouble following directions. Preschoolers can generally follow three-part commands.
  • Difficulty talking and playing with children the same age. Most preschoolers can cooperate with other children and negotiate solutions to conflicts.

EARLY SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN (5 TO 7 YEARS)

  • Trouble connecting sounds with letters.
  • Difficulty remembering everyday words.
  • Continuing to reverse letters (such as b/d), flip over letters (m/w), or mix up letters and words. Reversing letters usually disappears by age 7.
  • Having a hard time with basic math facts. By 5 years, most children can count five to 10 objects. By age 7, most can count to 100.
  • ┬áNot being able to recall facts.
  • Trouble learning new skills.
  • Memorizing things more than understanding them.
  • Poor coordination. By age 6 or 7, most children can hold a pencil well enough to copy letters correctly.
  • Not making friends or being able to have social conversations.

Lots of children will show one or more of these signs and not have a learning disability. But if your child shows two or more warning signs that don’t improve over several months, talk with your child’s teacher. All public schools must evaluate children when a disability is known or suspected. Many psychologists and medical centers also offer testing.

Also talk with your child’s pediatrician. Some medical conditions (for example, a hearing problem, or epilepsy) can look like a learning disability. Your pediatrician can help get your child needed testing and help.

If a problem exists, it’s important to begin treatment promptly. You can’t “cure” a learning disability. But there are many ways to help a child with a learning disability to be successful.