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What Is a General Learning Disability?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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A person with a general learning disability or intellectual disability will have greater difficulty understanding and learning in general than most other people. In contrast, those with specific learning disabilities may find one or two particular aspects of learning difficult, such as reading and math, but otherwise have normal or even gifted abilities. This generalized disorder is characterized by impaired cognitive function and deficits in more than two adaptive behaviors, like ability to work and money management. The degree of disability ranges from mild or highly functional to severe, and causes includes genetic disorders, brain injury, and infection. A general learning disability used to be referred to as mental retardation or a mental handicap.

Most cases of general learning disabilities come to light during childhood. Historically, a person with this disorder had an intelligence quotient score less than 70. Signs include delay in language and adaptive behavior development and a lack of social inhibitors. These children will likely have trouble learning social rules and problem-solving skills as well. Although children with a general learning disability may learn more slowly than most others the same age, almost all are able to progress.

There are many possible causes of a general learning disability, but factors like cultural difference and economic disadvantage are not among them. Genetic factors as well as brain injuries and infections can lead to this condition. Down’s and fragile X syndromes as well as cerebral palsy are all causes linked to genetic factors. In some cases, the disability results from a brain injury or infection before, at, or after birth. For many people with a general learning disability, the cause remains unknown.

Ignoring signs of a general learning disability can be counterproductive because treatment and support cannot be put in place until the problem is confronted and recognized. The sooner this is done, the sooner the individual can get the assistance he or she needs. Different treatments and support programs are available depending on the cause and severity of the disability.

Unless the disability is extremely severe, many affected students can attend school with their peers. Local schools can make special arrangements and course modifications to accommodate a student’s particular needs. Support services can also provide social opportunities and support groups.

Although a general learning disability is not a mental illness, such individuals are more likely to suffer from mental health problems like anxiety or depression. Additional developmental disorders like attention deficit disorder or autism spectrum disorder are also more common. Being observant of new behaviors can help diagnose and treat any additional problems early.

The degree of disability can vary significantly, with some unable to communicate or care for themselves and others who are capable of complete independence. The situation can be overwhelming for parents and immediate family members, especially if communication and by extension understanding prove difficult. Siblings may become jealous or embarrassed and may feel somehow responsible for the situation.

Having a general learning disability does not prevent an individual from enjoying rich and fulfilling life experiences. It does not necessarily prevent someone from eventually becoming an independent and self-sufficient adult. Identifying the disability and intervening as soon as possible can help ensure that the individual reaches his or her full potential.

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