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A learning disorder is characterised by abnormalities with the process of the acquisition of knowledge. Its origin is neurological and corresponds to an impairment of one or several cognitive functions.
Various disorders may be specifically related to impaired cognitive functions that are required to acquire knowledge:
Learning disorders may concern specific capacities related to learned knowledge and skill such as reading or spelling. These disorders have names beginning with “dys”:
The origins of impaired cognitive functioning can be neurodevelopmental. This means that the origin is neurological and that the symptoms appear as the child’s brain develops and matures.
Some learning disorders, such as autism for example, can be the consequence of neurodevelopmental conditions. A child with autism indeed often exhibits disorders in the realms of attention, executive function, language, motor skills and visuospatial processing.
Changes in brain functioning can also be acquired and can be the consequence of brain trauma, exposure to toxins etc. Certain types of cognitive impairment may also have emotional origins. For example, attention deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity) is often a symptom of anxiety.
To summarise, learning disorders may be related to:
First and foremost it is essential to determine whether the child has a learning difficulty or a leaning disorder.
The prior may be resolved by psychoeducational support or psychotherapy. The latter requires a full psychological and neuropsychological assessment in order to determine the best treatment plan potentially involving occupational therapy, speech therapy, neuropsychological rehabilitation, psychotherapy etc.
Several factors should alert us to the presence of a learning difficulty. The child may be experiencing difficulties if the following activities are carried out slowly or painstakingly:
Children with learning difficulties may also show:
Those children who suffer from permanent and persistent learning difficulties may be suffering from a learning disorder (or cognitive disorder). The presence of the following factors may indicate a permanent and persistent learning difficulty:
At any one point in time, our brain is carrying out complex procedures to gather and process the information it encounters. In order to do so, it uses what are known as "cognitive functions". Cognitive functions can be defined as the cerebral activities that lead to knowledge (cognition). They include all types of mechanisms for acquiring information, namely:
It is thanks to the efficiency of our cognitive functions that we can participate in the world around us and learn. When a child has difficulties learning or being in the world, it means that there are deficits or at least difficulties with one or more of their cognitive functions.
Due to the complexity of the brain and it’s functioning, an exploration of the different capacities that may have an influence on the relationship with the world and learning, is essential. For example, children with autism often display varying difficulties that should be assessed, such as emotional, social, attention, language-based and mobility impairments.
In case of a suspected learning disorder, for children from the age of 6 and above, a full psychological and neuropsychological assessment should be carried out. The full assessment links together cognitive development with emotional and affective development.
* Neuropsychological assessment examines cognitive development. It analyses the totality of the cognitive (brain) functions. By exploring the symptoms displayed by the child, it enables deficits of any of the brains functions to be identified. It examines the following cognitive aspects of the child:
* Psychological assessment examines emotional development. It allows the psychologist to identify the specificities of a child’s personality and whether or not any disorder is present. It examines the following psychological aspects of the child:
If a learning disorder is suspected before the age of 6, a developmental assessment can be carried out. This involves assessment of the child’s stage of development in relation to that of other children of the same age. The following aspects are examined:
A developmental assessment enables the detection of deficits as well as helping to make diagnostic hypotheses and to orient the therapeutic care plan as well as psychoeducational strategies at school and at home.
Under the age of 6, the child is in a stage of phenomenal neuronal and psycho-affective development. The diagnostic hypotheses based on the developmental assessment should be verified around the age of 6 once the brain functions are not in such a major phase of development.
As the brain functions are still in the process of developing, we cannot expect, for example, a 3-year-old to have fully developed attentional capacities and to be able to concentrate. For this reason, this cognitive cannot be assessed. Certain cognitive functions cannot be assessed before the age of 6.
Therefore, a full psychological and neuropsychological assessment at the age of 6 allows for the diagnosis to be confirmed or otherwise and for an evaluation of the totality of the cognitive functions in depth. In the meanwhile, psychological treatment can be offered to assist the child in their development.
An assessment can be carried out before the age of 6, as soon as developmental difficulties are detected, or after the age of 6 as soon as learning difficulties are detected. Frequently the school notifies the parents around the time of 1st grade – a critical time for learning. This is a key moment in which to carry out an assessment. Prior to 1st grade, it is often the parents that notice their child’s developmental difficulties and these may be indicators of future learning difficulties.
All too often, parents only seek an assessment after years of questioning and academic difficulties that have had the time to negatively affect the child’s self esteem.
The sooner the assessment, the sooner the therapeutic care plan and psycho-educational program can be put into place, potentially enabling/facilitating an improvement during this critical phase of brain development that marks childhood.
The assessment helps to respond to several questions.
The evaluation allows for difficulties to be identified and for a diagnosis or diagnostic hypothesis to be proposed. It enables:
The evaluation can guide the follow-up treatment and maximise the learning potential and well-being of the child. The objective is to help the child to flourish on all levels - academic, social and emotional. The evaluation helps: