Learning disabilities include a number of discrete disorders that affect children’s ability to learn. Learning disabilities do not include problems that are mainly visual, hearing, emotional or intellectual, although these can also make it more difficult to learn. There are three main types of learning disabilities: difficulty with reading (dyslexia), difficulty with written language (dysgraphia), and difficulty with math (dyscalculia). Less common forms of learning disabilities include difficulty with memory or social skills.
A learning disability can be a life-long condition, affecting many aspects of life, including education and employment, family life, and daily routines. Children with learning disabilities are far more likely than other children to be enrolled in special education and to use health care services. Despite their limitations, persons with learning disabilities can learn if given the opportunity. Academic supports and accommodations can help with the learning process, as can medical treatment for certain disorders.
It is not clear what causes learning disorders. However, existing evidence indicates a diverse set of influences related to problems in bringing together information from various parts of the brain. Possible causes for these difficulties include genetic factors; maternal use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco during pregnancy; complications during pregnancy; and environmental toxins, such as cadmium and lead.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not in itself a learning disability, but it often interferes with learning and is connected to academic skills disorders. Estimates are that slightly less than one-half of all children ages six to 11 identified as having a learning disability also have ADHD.
Between 1997 and 2013, the proportion of children identified by a school official or health professional as having a learning disability varied only slightly, staying between seven and eight percent, and was eight percent in 2013. (Figure 1)
Boys are more likely than girls to be identified as having a learning disability. In 2013, nine percent of boys and six percent of girls, ages three to 17, had a learning disability. (Figure 1)
In 2013, children who had a parent with a Bachelor’s degree or higher were less likely to have a learning disability than those with parents who had only a high school diploma or some college (five percent, compared with ten and eight percent, respectively). (Appendix 1)
Children covered by public health insurance are almost twice as likely as uninsured children and children with private insurance to be identified as having a learning disability (10 percent of children covered by public health insurance, versus six percent of uninsured children and children with private insurance, in 2013). (Figure 2)
Children in poverty and in families that receive public assistance are more likely to be identified as having a learning disability. In 2013, 12 percent of children living in families below the federal poverty line were identified as having a learning disability, compared with six percent of other children. Children living in families that receive SNAP benefits (food stamps) are also much more likely than other children to be identified as having a learning disability: 11 percent, compared with six percent of other children. Differences by TANF (welfare) receipt were not significant in 2013). (Appendix 1)
In 2013, there were no significant differences in the rate of learning disabilities by race or Hispanic origin. (Appendix 1)
The percentage of children who are identified as having a learning disability increases with age. In 2013, three percent of three- to four-year-olds, eight percent of five- to eleven-year-olds, and nine percent of12- to 17-year olds had been diagnosed as having a learning disability. (Appendix 1) Some of this disparity is certainly due to the longer period of time in which a learning disability can become evident.
The U. S. Office of Special Education Programs offers a count of children covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), for each state from 2005-2012. (under Public Data and Resources, 2012 IDEA Part B Child Count and Educational Environments)
2011/12 estimates, by state, of children with a learning disability (parent reported) are available from the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health.
The National Health Interview Survey asks adult respondents, typically a parent, the following question concerning their child: “Has a representative from a school or a health professional ever told you that (sample child) had a learning disability?”
According to education and health professionals, a learning disability may exist when the child’s level of achievement is substantially below what is expected by their intelligence level or ability to learn. Federal legislation regulating special education services in public schools defines a learning disability as “a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”
Data for 1998-2013: Original analyses by Child Trends of the National Health Interview Survey.
Data for 1997: Bloom B, and Tonthat L. (2002). Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National health interview survey, 1997. Vital Health Stat, 10(203). Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_203.pdf
National Health Interview Survey
|At or above poverty||–||6.9||6.8||8.0||7.3||7.5||7.6||7.9||6.5||7.6||7.4||7.9||7.7||7.1||6.8||7.4||6.4|
school or less
school graduate/ GED
college, no degree /AA degree
degree or higher
|Usual source of health care5|
|No usual source||–||6.5||7.0||8.6||8.7||11.1||6.9||6.2||7.0||5.4||7.2||7.8||5.3||5.8||5.4||6.7||5.6|
|Received income from welfare/TANF||–||14.0||14.4||14.5||16.9||15.0||15.0||16.3||12.8||14.0||14.3||18.6||14.9||11.8||11.6||15.5||12.0|
|Did not receive income from welfare/TANF||–||6.9||6.6||7.5||7.2||7.8||7.2||7.6||6.7||7.5||7.2||7.6||7.8||7.7||7.3||7.6||7.3|
|Food Stamps/SNAP 6|
|Authorized to receive food stamps/SNAP||–||12.2||13.2||12.8||15.6||14.3||12.3||12.4||11.9||12.7||11.3||14.3||12.2||13.1||10.7||12.6||11.3|
|Not authorized to receive food stamps/SNAP||–||6.7||6.4||7.3||6.7||7.3||6.8||7.3||6.2||6.8||7.0||6.9||7.3||6.4||6.4||6.4||6.1|
|1Persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.
2Parental education reflects the education level of the most educated parent in the child’s household.
3Children with both public and private insurance are placed in the private insurance category.
4As defined here, public health insurance for children consists mostly of MEDICAID or other public assistance programs, including State plans. It does not include children with only Medicare or the Civilian Health and Medical Care Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS/CHAMP-VA/Tricare).
5Excludes emergency rooms as a usual source of care.
6 At least one family member receives benefit.
Source: Data for 1997: Bloom B, and Tonthat L. (2002). Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National Health Interview Survey, 1997. Vital Health Stat, 10(203). Data for 1998-2013: original analysis by Child Trends of National Health Interview Survey data 1998-2013.
National Institute of Mental Health. Learning disabilities: Decade of the brain (NIH95-3611). Accessed March 30, 2006 at: http://www.ldonline.org/ld_indepth/general_info/gen-nimh-booklet.html
Pastor, P., Reuben, C. (2002). Attention deficit disorder and learning disability: United States 1997-98. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(206), 1. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_206.pdf
Ibid, page 16.
National Institute of Mental Health. Learning disabilities: Decade of the brain. NIH95-3611. Pages 7-8. http://www.ldonline.org/ld_indepth/general_info/gen-nimh-booklet.html
Ibid, page 6.
 Pastor P., Reuben C. (2002). Attention deficit disorder and learning disability: United States 1997-98. National Center for
Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(206). Table A. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_206.pdf
 Hispanics may be of any race. Estimates for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics.
 Pastor P., Reuben C. (2002). Op. Cit. page 8.
Pastor P., Reuben C. (2002). Op. Cit. page 13.
Child Trends Databank. (2014). Learning disabilities. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=learning-disabilitiesLast updated: August 2014