What types of learning disabilities qualify children for special education?

Learning disabilities impair a child’s ability to function and thrive in a standard educational setting. Since 1975, the government has recognized the importance of diagnosing and assisting children with learning disabilities. The disabilities below are listed among those that warrant special education assistance in a public education setting.

Autism, Mental Retardation, and Emotional Disturbances

Autism is a growing epidemic in America, affecting 1 out of every 110 children. Autism can be diagnosed as early as age one based on an analysis of a child’s development. Children who miss multiple developmental marks related to speech and interaction with others may be diagnosed with autism. Once these children reach school age, schools are notified of the disability and various educational therapies are attempted. Autistic children may be completely removed from the group setting and individual skills may be honed with the help of a licensed educational therapist.

Mental retardation is defined in federal legislation as “significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, which adversely affects a child's educational performance.” Mental retardation, similar to autism, is diagnosed before a child reaches school age. Once the child enters school, an individualized educational plan is formed. A mentally retarded child never enters a regular classroom setting, but remains in special education with a licensed educational therapist.

According to federal law, a child suffering from serious emotional disturbance has “a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance: an inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors; an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”

Schools require a child to be diagnosed by a licensed psychologist if serious emotional disturbances are perceived. Children with serious emotional disturbances typically come from difficult home situations or have witnessed especially traumatic events.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Specific learning disabilities are by far the most common qualification for special education and may include “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.” The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

These learning disabilities are typically recognized once children begin learning to read and write and must be diagnosed by a psychologist. Once the psychologist diagnoses the problem, an Individualized Educational Document (IED) is created. This document outlines the educational goals for the student and any adaptations that are used within the formal classroom setting. Children with specific learning disabilities typically spend some time with a special education therapist each week, but spend most of their time in the regular classroom. Typical modifications include reduced workloads, individual instruction, and extended time for taking tests.

Speech or Language Impairment

A speech or language impairment is defined as “a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or voice impairment, which adversely affects a child's educational performance.” Unlike other learning disabilities, speech and language impairments will only affect a child’s ability to verbally communicate.

Children with diagnosed speech or language impairments receive time with a licensed speech therapist to correct the problem. As a general rule, the sooner speech therapy begins, the easier it is to correct the impairment.