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Learning difficulties refer to any problems experienced with reading, writing, spelling and mathematics. They tend to be specific in nature, and relate to a neurological condition which impairs cognitive development.
The exact causes of learning difficulties are unclear and the possible reasons are diverse and complex. Evidence suggests that learning difficulties are not the result of problems in one area of the brain but from problems in bringing information together from various areas of the brain.
Disturbances in brain function may begin before birth (genetic) or develop as a result of the environment in which a child lives and interacts.
During pregnancy, foetal development is vulnerable to disruption. If disruption occurs early then it can lead to death of the foetus, however later disruptions can leave errors in cell makeup which shows up as learning disorders.
Learning difficulties tend to run in families which indicates a strong genetic link to the problem. A parent with a related problem (such as reading) is more at risk of producing a child who lacks similar skills. It is also possible for the learning disability to take a different form in which case it is unlikely to be inherited however what may be inherited is a subtle brain dysfunction that can lead to learning difficulties.
Learning difficulties may also run in families due to the environment in which family members live. Parents with language disorders may talk less to their children and in such cases the child does not acquire good language skills which is then deemed to be a learning disability.
Toxins from alcohol, tobacco or drugs can be passed from the mother to the foetus and have damaging effects on the unborn child. Mothers who smoke increase the risk of delivering smaller newborns and those weighing less than 5 pounds are at higher risk of developing learning disorders. Alcohol is linked to distorting brain development which can lead to intellectual impairment and hyperactivity. Cocaine use affects brain receptors which are important in understanding speech and letters.
Complications during pregnancy such as problems with the mother's immune system can lead to the foetus being attacked as if it were an infection. This results in newly formed brain cells settling in the wrong part of the brain. A twisted umbilical cord during delivery can cut off oxygen to the child temporarily leading to impaired brain function.
Children suspected of having learning difficulties are diagnosed during elementary school although in some cases a diagnosis may not be made until high school. Diagnosis involves an ongoing assessment and diagnostic process that will usually involve the school.
Diagnosing learning difficulties in adults is accomplished through assessment of the individual's educational or employment needs. Assessment involves evaluating social skills, emotional behaviours and tests to determine intellectual ability.