Learning Disabilities: Causes, Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Have you noticed that your child is struggling with learning certain skills in school, such as reading, writing, or math? Or maybe they have trouble staying focused, paying attention, or keeping organized. You might think that your child will simply “grow out of” these behaviors without treatment, but that’s not the case with learning disabilities.

Ignoring the warning signs of learning disorders—which affect an estimated 1 in 5 children in the U.S.—can have lasting negative effects, far beyond school. From anxiety and troubled peer relationships to suicidal thoughts and substance abuse, the repercussions can last a lifetime. That’s why it’s crucial for parents to become more familiar with different types and symptoms of learning disorders, as well as where to seek help.

Children with learning disabilities can be just as smart as their peers. They simply have neurologically based processing issues that make learning more challenging. Click To Tweet


Learning disabilities negatively impact a child’s ability to learn. Amen Clinics’ brain-imaging work using SPECT scans has found that issues with learning are not single or simple disorders, and they can create attentional, emotional, or behavioral problems.

Children with learning disorders can be just as smart as their peers. They simply have neurologically based processing issues that make learning more challenging.

Brain-imaging research shows that learning disabilities are associated with abnormal function in brain regions involved with certain cognitive processes necessary for learning. Affected skills include reading, writing, language, math, memory, problem-solving, attention, and information processing.

Left untreated, these issues can persist in adults, who may have issues with time management and organization. Those with learning disorders may also have difficulty with short-term memory or the ability to focus.

A range of factors may influence the onset of a learning disability. This can include exposure to drugs (including alcohol) or illness to a fetus in utero, or brain damage caused at birth. Other children have a genetic predisposition or face an illness or psychological trauma in their early years. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and exposure to environmental toxins also may play a role.


Let’s look more closely at 7 types of learning disorders that have been identified through extensive brain imaging work at Amen Clinics, and the symptoms and brain patterns associated with them.

  1. Attention-Deficit Disorder, also called Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 6 million children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Even with many children remaining undiagnosed, ADD/ADHD is the most common learning disorder of our youth today. And among the 6 million confirmed cases, 23% of them are not receiving treatment.

ADD/ADHD symptoms include behavioral issues, such as problems paying attention and procrastinating, as well as being easily distracted, disorganized, and impulsive.

SPECT brain scans show why: In most people, the act of concentrating increases blood flow to certain regions of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex (PFC). But in ADHD-affected kids, concentration makes blood flow decrease in the PFC.

However, be aware that this condition is complex—there are actually 7 types of ADD/ADHD, each with unique brain patterns and symptoms.

  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

The CDC reports that 1 in 36 children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with boys almost 4 times more likely than girls to be affected. ASD is often associated with issues in communication, social skills, and behavior.

Developmental delays and learning disabilities often accompany the condition, which (as its name indicates) occurs on a spectrum, from mild to severe.

ASD is also complex, since it does not indicate a single problem—8 to 10 factors can influence the abnormal brain function. Brain-imaging studies at Amen Clinics using SPECT scans of children and adults with autism have shown that their brain patterns tend to show high activity or low activity (or both, in some cases).

In addition, ASD impacts the developing brain by altering how neurons “talk” to each other.

  1. Emotional Disturbances

Children with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues can struggle in school. They may experience heightened anxiety during tests, have trouble with public speaking, lack motivation, or show excessive irritability.

These issues are likely to increase in the U.S. as depression and anxiety continue to rise among teens. The CDC reports that 9.4% and 4.4% of teens have anxiety and depression, respectively.

Amen Clinics has identified 7 types of anxiety and depression based on brain imaging. Common SPECT findings point to excessive activity in the basal ganglia (signaling anxiety) and overactivity in the limbic system (in cases of depression).

  1. Behavioral Problems

Behavioral problems are more severe than the typical temper tantrums that all children can occasionally have. When your child shows problems with defiance, aggression, and temper over an extended time period, there could be a deeper issue at work.

This is especially true if there have been negative consequences but no change in behavior. Again, brain scans of these children show too little or too much activity in certain areas. In serious cases, the child may be diagnosed with an impulse control disorder, such as oppositional defiant disorder.

  1. Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

One 2020 study on adolescent TBIs noted that 20-22% of youth in the U.S. and Canada experience at least one TBI, caused by dangers like sports injuries and accidents. However, many parents aren’t aware of this silent epidemic, which occurs on a spectrum, from mild to severe.

Even mild brain injuries can lead to symptoms like confusion, difficulty with concentration and paying attention, memory problems, anxiety, and depression. Any of these can interfere with academic performance.

Brain SPECT imaging shows that these injuries are associated with areas of low blood flow in the brain.

  1. Dyslexia

Dyslexia (reading impairment) is a type of specific learning disorder (SLD), a grouping that also includes dysgraphia (writing impairment) and dyscalculia (math impairment). According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), an estimated 5-15% of school-age children struggle with a learning disability.

An estimated 80% of those with learning disorders have an impairment in reading. Dyslexia affects 20% of the population, equally split among males and females. SPECT scans of dyslexic people often show decreased activity in 2 areas: the prefrontal cortex and the left temporal lobe.

  1. Irlen Syndrome

If your child struggles with completing homework, performs poorly on exams, or avoids reading assignments, consider screening them for Irlen Syndrome. This visual processing problem means that certain colors of the light spectrum can irritate the brain.

The Irlen Syndrome Foundation notes that, in addition to affecting 14% of the general population, it’s more prevalent in those with ADD/ADHD or autism (33%), reading/learning challenges (46%), and head injuries (35%). These children may also display symptoms like anxiety, low motivation, light sensitivity, or headaches.


In years past, children with learning disorders too often went undiagnosed. Instead, they were branded as troublemakers, lazy, or less intelligent.

Today, we know how harmful these assumptions can be to children whose brains are wired differently, so it’s important to screen your child as soon as learning issues arise. You could potentially prevent the years of frustration, shame, and low self-esteem that often accompany learning disabilities.

However, bear in mind that learning disorders are complex, so a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment will never work. Treatment that’s beneficial for one child (or adult) might not be effective for another—or could even worsen their symptoms. Getting a personalized treatment plan for each individual, based on their brain type, is necessary to target the issue effectively.

In addition, natural interventions such as lifestyle changes and alternative learning strategies can make a significant positive impact. A comprehensive approach to treatment is the best strategy to ensure that children with learning disorders overcome their difficulties and enjoy the successful lives they deserve.

Learning disorders and the mental health issues that come with them can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 833-543-1401 or visit our contact page here.

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