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Causes of Learning Disabilities (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Heredity

Siblings and children of persons with reading disabilities have a slightly greater than normal likelihood of having reading problems. There is growing evidence that genetics may account for at least some family links with dyslexia (Pennington, 1995; Raskind, 2001). Research has located possible chromosomal loci for the genetic transmission of phonological deficits that may predispose a child for reading problems later (Cardon et al., 1994; Kaplan et al., 2002).

Biochemical Imbalance

It was once theorized that biochemical disturbances within a child’s body caused learning disabilities. For example, Feingold (1975, 1976) claimed that artificial colorings and flavorings in many of the foods children eat can cause learning disabilities and hyperactivity. He recommended a treatment for learning disabilities that consisted of a diet with no foods containing synthetic colors or flavors. In a comprehensive review of research studies that tested the special diet, Spring and Sandoval (1976) concluded that there was very little scientific evidence to support Feingold’s theory. In response to the controversy over diet treatments, the American Council on Science and Health (1979) issued the following statement:

Hyperactivity will continue to be a frustrating problem until research resolves the questions of its cause, or causes, and develops an effective treatment. The reality is that we still have a great deal to learn about this condition. We do know now, however, that diet is not the answer. It is clear that the symptoms of the vast majority of the children labeled “hyperactive” are not related to salicylates, artificial food colors, or artificial flavors. The Feingold diet creates extra work for homemakers and changes the family lifestyle . . . but it doesn’t cure hyperactivity.

It was also suggested that learning disabilities can be caused by the inability of a child’s bloodstream to synthesize a normal amount of vitamins (Cott, 1972). Some physicians began megavitamin therapy with children with learning disabilities, which consisted of massive daily doses of vitamins in an effort to overcome the suspected vitamin deficiencies. Two studies designed to test the effects of megavitamin treatment with learning disabled and hyperkinetic children found that huge doses of vitamins did not improve the children’s performance (Arnold, Christopher, Huestis, & Smeltzer, 1978; Kershner, Hawks, & Grekin, 1977). Today, most professionals in learning disabilities give little credence to biochemical imbalance as a significant cause of children’s learning problems.

Environmental Factors

Although very difficult to document as primary causes of learning disabilities, environmental factors—particularly impoverished living conditions early in a child’s life and poor instruction—probably contribute to the achievement deficits experienced by many children in this special education category. The tendency for learning disabilities to run in families suggests a correlation between environmental influences on children’s early development and subsequent achievement in school. Evidence for this relationship can be found in longitudinal research such as that conducted by Hart and Risley (1995), who found that infants and toddlers who received infrequent communication exchanges with their parents were more likely to show deficits in vocabulary, language use, and intellectual development before entering school.

Another environmental variable that is likely to contribute to children’s learning problems is the quality of instruction they receive. Many special educators today believe that Engelmann (1977) was correct when he claimed more than 25 years ago that the vast majority of “children who are labeled ‘learning disabled’ exhibit a disability not because of anything wrong with their perception, synapses, or memory, but because they have been seriously mistaught”.

Although the relationship between poor instruction and learning disabilities is not clear, there is a great deal of evidence showing that many students’ learning problems can be remediated by direct, intensive, and systematic instruction. It would be naive to think, however, that the achievement problems of all children with learning disabilities are caused entirely by inadequate instruction. Nevertheless, from an educational perspective, intensive, systematic instruction should be the treatment of first choice for all students with learning disabilities.

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