Learning Disabilities Versus Genetic Disorders

No two students are born alike. In many cases this is what makes them unique. However,in some cases, those differences are extremely unfortunate and pose challenges that go beyond the factors of different hair, skin, eye color or height. Students with learning disabilities or with a genetic disorder are usually served by the country’s special education programs. In most cases, their ability to access an appropriate education is affected by their condition: Some more than others.

Still, suggesting that students with learning disabilities and those with genetic disorders are the same would be inaccurate. It is true that some learning disabilities such as Down syndrome are caused by genetic disorders. Also, the same laws – Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or PL 94-142) and/or Section 504 – ensures that students with these conditions are given access to free and appropriate education. However, not all learning conditions are caused by genetic disorders. And, not all genetic disorders determine if a student belongs in special education. For this reason, the differences between learning disabilities and genetic disorders need to be examined.

1. Learning Disabilities (LD)

LD is a common label designated for students with special needs. It is often the basis or eligibility for a student to have an individualized education plan (IEP). In a broad sense, it refers to a numerous conditions that affect a person’s ability to learn new information. The reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 expanded on the definition by stating that it is a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes involved in understanding language, spoken or written, which affects one’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. The term “severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability” came to refer to LD. The areas where these discrepancies can be found in order to make a child eligible for special education are:

a. Oral expression
b. Listening Comprehension
c. Written Expression
d. Basic reading skills
e. Reading comprehension
f. Mathematics calculation; or
g. Mathematical reasoning.

Several disabilities have been labeled under the LD umbrella. IDEA 97 included conditions such as minimum brain dysfunction, dyslexia, brain injury, auditory and visual processing disorders. IDEA 2004 added autism as a separate category of disabilities. ADD and ADHD, commonly associated with learning disabilities are placed in another category called Other Health Impairment (OHI).

For the most part, these conditions are neurological dysfunctions. It is suspected that environmental factors during pregnancy can cause this. Others, like brain injury are caused by congenital factors such a disease or an accident. Most students with brain injury had serious head trauma caused by a car accident or a blow to the head. The cause of other LDs such as the processing disorders has yet to be fully understood; however, evidence points to faulty neurotransmitters in the brain as the culprit.

There is a process to determine how a student has a learning disability. Generally, a child is identified by a parent or teacher, later after permission from parents or guardian, the student is assessed, interviewed and observed in the classroom. Also, teacher interviews and parent interviews are used as well. Finally a team of educators, service providers, administrators, special education and general education teacher, the parents and the student meet to determine if the child needs special education service (It should be noted that this much generalized process will include other things such as response to intervention (RTI) which was part of IDEA 2004. Also this process should be done within 60 days of the first report).

2. Genetic Disorders

Genetic disorder is purely a scientific term, unlike LD which is a legal definition. A genetic disorder is something a person is born with. It is usually passed down from one generation to the next. In some cases it will skip a generation. Certain conditions are prevalent among certain sexes and races .There are several genetic disorders that have been identified. They are either the results of a mutation of a single gene or the addition or subtraction of a chromosome. Either way, the likelihood is that many of these conditions are built into the DNA of an individual.

There have been more than a 200 hundred genetic disorders identified. At this point, there are no cures; however, with early detection, a life may be spared or treatments can help those afflicted by these conditions. The conditions a genetic disorder can be are diseases, a myriad of syndromes, birth defects or physical handicaps. Some of these conditions may cause infertility or developmental delays. Among the most common genetic disorders are:

a. Cystic fibrosis
b. Albinoism
c. Down syndrome
d. Hemophilia
e. Klinfilter’s Syndrome (extra X chromosome; infertility in males)
f. Color blindness

It should be noted that some of these conditions are apparent at birth. Other conditions may manifest in later years. Also, some of these conditions, such as sickle cell anemia, will result in an early death.

There are several criteria to determine if a child has a genetic disorder. Family history plays a major role. However, a procedure called amniocentesis is frequently used during high-risk pregnancies. Amniocentesis is a process in which a small sample of amniotic fluid is drawn out of the uterus through a needle inserted in the abdomen. The fluid is analyzed to detect genetic abnormalities in the fetus or to determine the sex of the fetus.

Finally, it should be noted, that genetic disorders don’t always equate special education services. In some cases, all a student needs is monitoring; others may only need a 504 plan to ensure they are being accommodated in the classroom. On the other hand, some are designated as moderate to severe disabilites. These are the ones who are considered to have intellectual delays (mental retardations). These students are usually placed in an all-day special education class such as life skills or basic skills.

As it stands, learning disabilities and genetic disorders have a lot of differences. But they do have their similarities. In many cases, these disabilities can be treated, but not cured. Also, they can be identified at an early stage in life. Still, it’s important to note that civil right laws do apply to these individual. Despite their disabilities, they are entitled to free and appropriate education.