Learning Disabilities: The Hidden Handicap
Though learning disabilities may not be visible to the naked eye, seven million, or fourteen percent of all public school students, are affected by this quiet handicap (nces.edu.gov). Learning disabilities are neurologically-based processing problems. People with all forms of learning disabilities function just the same as their peers and elders but they grapple with a hidden handicap that is widely misunderstood, often incurable and has unknown origins ranging. Learning disabilities also have an impact on the biological and social development of those affected by them. Depending on the severity of the learning disability, fundamental and basic learning skills are challenging and can range from needing more time to complete the task of being unable to understand how to accomplish the task (Ozernov-Palchik et al., 2017). Learning disabilities have origins in either environmental factors, family history, including the genetic makeup of the child’s DNA as well as prenatal or neonatal risks.
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Scientists, doctors, researchers, educators, and parents wonder where learning disabilities originate. There is evidence to support that disability runs in families just like any other trait or disease. Certain people may be more predisposed to inheriting learning disabilities, just like they may be more likely to inherit specific traits such as eye color, hair color, or behavior patterns. The National Center for Learning Disabilities has research showing that risk factors are usually present from birth. In addition, they also tend to run in families and in most cases, “children who have a parent with a learning disability are ten percent more likely to develop a learning disability themselves” (Butterworth et al., 2013). Researchers have found that mutations of the genes that may have increased risk for learning disabilities are found on the X chromosome. Since males have only one X chromosome, the intellectual disease is passed down in a recessive manner. Women can be affected, but only if both of their X chromosomes carry the defective genes (Hu, H., Haas, S., Chelly, J. et al., 2015). There are many family inheritance and genetic factors that influence the likelihood or development of learning disabilities and how they may be expressed.
To further support the genetics associated with learning disabilities, scientists have found that poor brain development causes learning disabilities in two to three percent of the population (Sample, 2009). Nine genes are likely linked to poor brain development, which contributes to learning disabilities in young men after analyzing the genetic makeup of more than 200 families. The work of Tarpey supports this, showing that men who carry the faulty genes can only pass to their daughters through their X chromosomes, making it a recessive trait (Tarpey PS et al., 2009). This is important to note that males may be more prone to genetic disorders in general. This is only true for X linked intellectual disability. A study conducted by Webber, Hehir-Kwa, Nguyen, de Vires, and Veltman and published in Public Library of Science found that the DNA changes associated with learning disability contained higher than expected numbers of genes affected the nervous system. The study and its results show and suggest that the loss and disruption of such genes could result in learning difficulties.
Learning disabilities can be better understood by investigating the genetics of parents and offspring and environmental factors. As there does not seem to be specific genes that relate to offspring having learning disabilities, environmental factors such as fetal alcohol syndrome can also relate to offspring developing learning disabilities. Research and studies from the Mayo Clinic and the Learning Disabilities Association of America highlight that exposure and use of alcohol or drugs before being born, poor growth in the uterus, premature birth, prolonged labor, lack of oxygen, and meager birth weight have been shown to have direct correlations with learning disorders (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2019). Another risk factor for children in utero or after birth is exposure to toxins. Children are smaller and closer to the ground; they receive a much more concentrated dose of toxicant. Besides, young children have an immature detoxification system, and the blood-brain barrier is not fully formed until about a year old, which creates a difficulty when processing a toxicant. This therefore allows easier passage of a toxicant into the brain (McElgunn, 2001). Due to the size and surface area, children have a higher sensitivity to any toxin around them. Children will also be affected in a more significant way to toxin exposure developmentally as their brains are still developing, and a poorly developed brain leads to an increase in learning disabilities (Weiss, 2000). Learning disabilities can be better understood by investigating the genetics of parents and offspring and environmental factors. As there does not seem to be specific genes that relate to offspring having learning disabilities, environmental factors such as fetal alcohol syndrome can also relate to offspring developing learning disabilities. Research and studies from the Mayo Clinic and the Learning Disabilities Association of America highlight that exposure and use of alcohol or drugs before being born, poor growth in the uterus, premature birth, prolonged labor, lack of oxygen, and meager birth weight have been shown to have direct correlations with learning disorders (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2019). Another risk factor for children in utero or after birth is exposure to toxins. Children are smaller and closer to the ground; they receive a much more concentrated dose of toxicant than adults would. Besides, both a fetus and infant have an immature detoxification system, and the blood-brain barrier is not fully formed until about a year old, which creates a difficulty when processing a toxicant, allowing for easier passage of a toxicant into the brain (McElgunn, 2001). Due to the size and surface area, children have a higher sensitivity to any toxin around them. Children will also be affected in a more significant way to toxin exposure developmentally as their brains are still developing, and a poorly developed brain leads to an increase in learning disabilities (Weiss, 2000). The Food Quality Protection Act, known as FQPA, was established in 1966. The FQPA’s role was to look at the risks to children of the exposure to pesticides found in food or chemicals. The FQPA provided the following risk assessment factors such as safety factors for children in utero exposures and cumulative effects of pesticides. Fetal development is a highly sensitive stage of the life cycle, and exposure to pesticides at this stage are shown to cause damage later in life. Although individual chemical exposure levels may fall within the legal limit range, these levels can still be toxic to the fetus or child due to their vulnerability. Some examples of chemicals that can be toxic are both lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Research has shown that PCBs can reduce intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. Similarly, exposure to toxic chemicals may come from other sources such as produce residues, pesticide deposits from spraying trees in areas such as schoolyards where children play, contaminated drinking water, and residential neighborhoods that have a lot of children present.
One of the most persuasive arguments for additional protection for children is what might be called the ecology of childhood (Weiss, 2000). These factors include activities like young children spending much time on floors; they stir up and breathe dust and residues, and exposure to dust may be ten times greater than adults. Also, children exhibit exploratory behavior, especially as toddlers or young children as they literally lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Everything is picked up and put in their mouths, which is why safety is so essential around this age. Also, the consumption of breast milk, which can transmit lipid-soluble agents are at risk. Children’s activities take place close to ground level, and children’s size and height are important factors—thick vapors such as mercury collect at much higher concentrations near the floor than at adult waist level. With their activities, children also stir up floor dust that they then inhale (Weiss, 2000). Safety is vital at all ages, but embryos and children can have the harshest effects for life when not protected from toxins or dangerous situations.
According to an article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “nearly half a million infants are born prematurely in the United States each year” (CDC, Martin, Osterman, 2018). Because of this statistic, another element in the equation of learning disabilities are prenatal or neonatal risks as if pregnancy is a high risk, there can be complications. Some of these complications can occur during delivery, which may result in a lack of oxygen to the brain. Unless there is a significant loss of oxygen, this is very hard to diagnose. Often the learning disability is not seen until there is a delay in learning when the child begins learning or a pediatrician observes that the child is missing significant benchmarks in their growth. According to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine “preterm children also experience difficulties with visual-spatial and working memory that affect their mathematics performance, information retention and retrieval, ability to pay attention, task planning and completion, and comprehension capabilities” (Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Shulman, Lesser, 2013). Early birth is hard on infants, medical staff, and families, but the effects can range many years past initial birth and even remain for life in various disabilities or disorders.
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Despite the evidence against learning disabilities, some question if learning disables fade with time and corresponds with a low IQ. They fail to see how impactful learning disabilities can be on how one learns. Those who believe learning disabilities are a myth think that students have a low IQ and cannot be successful. The National Association of Special Education Teachers states that students with learning disabilities usually “have average or above-average intelligence” (National Association of Special Education Teachers NASET, 2011). In terms of not being successful when having a learning disability, many famous and influential people such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, John F. Kennedy, and Steve Jobs have all found extreme successes while living with learning disabilities (Health Research Fund HRF, 2014).
As learning disabilities are usually invisible, most do not understand what is entailed and how debilitating learning disabilities can be. Learning disabilities affect everything from social development, processing of information, achievement academically, and other more abstract skills. Because of the array of learning disabilities and the various levels in which they affect people, it is hard to ascertain why or how they come about. This hidden handicap still has a stereotype of low IQ, laziness or lack of motivation just because it is misunderstood. Such questions are answered by looking at a combination of genetics, family history, prenatal and environmental factors as there is evidence to support that all of those factors contribute to the development and diagnosis of learning disabilities.
- Butterworth, B., & Kovas, Y. (2013, April 19). Understanding neurocognitive developmental disorders can improve education for all. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23599478.
- Children and Youth with Disabilities. (2019, May). Retrieved February 11, 2020, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp.
- Hu, H., Haas, S., Chelly, J. et al. X-exome sequencing of 405 unresolved families identifies seven novel intellectual disability genes. Mol Psychiatry 21, 133–148 (2016) doi:10.1038/mp.2014.193
- Learning disorders: Know the signs, how to help. (2019, March 12). Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/learning-disorders/art-20046105.
- “List of Famous People with Learning Disabilities.” HRF, 28 Feb. 2014, healthresearchfunding.org/list-famous-people-learning-disabilities/.
- Martin, Joyce A., and Michelle J.K Osterman. “Products - Data Briefs - Number 312 - June 2018.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 June 2018, www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db312.htm?utm_source=STAT+Newsletters&utm_campaign=b026a2d06e-MR_COPY_09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8cab1d79…
- McElgunn, B. (2001, December). Learning disabilities and the environment: What we know - and how our policies are failing children. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805984/.
- “NASET.org Home Page.” NASET News Alert RSS, 4 Feb. 2011, www.naset.org/index.php?id=2522.
- Ozernov-Palchik, O., Norton, E. S., Sideridis, G., Beach, S. D., Wolf, M., Gabrieli, J. D. E., & Gaab, N. (2017, September). Longitudinal stability of pre-reading skill profiles of kindergarten children: implications for early screening and theories of reading. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5393968/.
- Sample, Ian. “Learning Disability Genes Found.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Apr. 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2009/apr/20/learning-disability-gene-study.
- Savage, J.E., Jansen, P.R., Stringer, S. et al. Genome-wide association meta-analysis in 269,867 individuals identifies new genetic and functional links to intelligence. Nat Genet 50, 912–919 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41588-018-0152-6
- Shulman, Lisa, and Lesser. “Challenges of Prematurity: Tackling Learning and Developmental Disabilities.” Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 14 Oct. 2013, www.einstein.yu.edu/features/stories/944/the-ongoing-challenges-of-prematurity-tackling-learning-and-developmental-disabilities/.
- staff, Science X. “Genetic Changes Involved in Learning Disability Identified.” Medical Xpress - Medical Research Advances and Health News, Medical Xpress, 26 June 2009, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2009-06-genetic-involved-disability.html.
- Tarpey PS et al. A systematic, large-scale resequencing screen of the X chromosome coding exons in mental retardation. Nature Genetics, DOI: 10.1038/ng.367
- Webber, C., Hehir-Kwa, J. Y., Nguyen, D.-Q., Vries, B. B. A. de, Veltman, J. A., & Ponting, C. P. (2009, June 26). Forging Links between Human Mental Retardation–Associated CNVs and Mouse Gene Knockout Models. Retrieved February 12, 2020, from https://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1000531.
- Weiss, B. (2000, June). Vulnerability of children and the developing brain to neurotoxic hazards. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1637834/.
- What causes learning disabilities? (2018, September 11). Retrieved February 13, 2020, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/learning/conditioninfo/causes.
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