Debunking the Myths about What Causes Learning Disabilities

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 7-year old son has been diagnosed with a learning disability (specifically dyslexia). Some friends of ours with a child the same age have been telling us that our son’s condition might have been caused by vaccines he had. They also say that vaccines cause autism and worse. We asked our doctor about this and he says vaccines are perfectly safe and that our son’s dyslexia was caused by other factors. Who’s right?

A: Your doctor. There’s been a lot of research in the past few years looking into the connection (or lack) between vaccines and learning disabilities or any other health risk. And the evidence is quite conclusive: According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), there is absolutely no evidence—scientific or otherwise—that vaccines cause learning disabilities.

Unfortunately, your friends aren’t the only ones who are confused about learning disabilities (LD). The NCLD (ncld.org) just did a study and found that a large percentage of Americans don’t really understand what LDs are and what causes them. Here’s how the NCLD defines LD:  “A learning disability is a biological ‘processing’ problem that impairs a person’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell and do math calculations.” That’s it. Here are a few examples of the misconceptions many of us have:

  • 55% of Americans believe that poor vision is one cause of certain LDs and that getting classes can treat them. Many also believe that LDs could be caused by poor hearing. They’re wrong.
  • 43% of us believe that there’s a connection between LD and mental retardation or low IQ. There isn’t.
  • 31% of us believe that a child’s poor diet causes LD. It doesn’t. And neither does watching TV or spending too much time on the computer (which 22% believe).
  • 25% agree with your friends that that vaccines cause LD.
  • Many of us believe that it’s possible to grow out of an LD. It’s not.
  • People have a tendency to lump many LDs, including dysgraphia (difficulty with handwriting), dyscalculia (difficulty with math) and dyspraxia (difficulty with motor skill development) in with autism disorders and anxiety disorders. They are not the same and there is no connection.

Okay, so if none of those things cause learning disabilities, where did your sons’ LD come from?

Well, first of all, genes play a role, meaning that LDs often run in families. Do you or your spouse have an LD? If so, there’s a good chance that that’s where your son’s came from.  Second, LD may be congenital, meaning that whatever caused them happened before your son was born. Pregnant women who use cocaine, drink a lot of alcohol, or smoke are at higher risk of having a child with LD.

A few words of warning: Because none of us wants to see our children suffer and we all want to do everything we can to give them the best possible life, parents are often targeted by unscrupulous people and companies promising to ”cure” your child’s LD.  I put cure in quotes because there is no such thing. As mentioned above, LDs aren’t something one grows out of—so save your money. But there are steps you can take to ensure that your son succeeds in school and in life.

Start by visiting the NCLD website, an unbiased source of excellent resources. Next learn about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides public school special ed services for many students, and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects children and adults with disabilities (including LD) from discrimination

 

Whatcha think?

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