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Learning Disabilities & Risk of Substance Abuse

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Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, there are seven identified types of learning disorders.

  1. Dyslexia: Dyslexia causes difficulties in reading and language processing. The term refers to a group of symptoms that affect oral, written, and other language skills, including writing and pronunciation of words. It affects parts of the brain that process language. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability.
  2. Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia refers to an impairment of handwriting that can also lead to difficulties in learning to spell. People with this condition may have impaired handwriting, impaired spelling, or both.
  3. Dyscalculia: This is a condition that leads to difficulty in learning or understanding arithmetic. It can present as difficulty in understanding numbers, manipulating numbers, performing mathematical calculations, and learning mathematical facts.
  4. Auditory processing disorder (APD): APD affects how sounds are processed or interpreted in the brain. People with APD are unable to distinguish slight differences between sounds in words. They also have difficulties determining the source of sounds, processing the order of sounds, or blocking out background noise while trying to focus on a specific source of sound.
  5. Language processing disorder (LPD): This disability causes problems for learners attempting to attach meaning to the sounds that compose words, sentences, and stories. Whereas APD affects the interpretation of all incoming sounds, LPD affects only the processing of language.
  6. Nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD): Non-verbal learning disabilities are generally described as causing a discrepancy between verbal skills and other skills, such as visual-spatial, motor, and social skills. This often causes problems for learners in decoding nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions or body language. People with NVLD may suffer from poor coordination.
  7. Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit: By affecting the ability to comprehend information taken in through visual means, this condition can affect reading skills as well as the ability to draw or copy visual information.

In addition, there are several related conditions that are not specifically categorized as learning disorders, but which can cause learning difficulties.

  • Memory issues: Whenever there are deficits in memory, there will be deficits in learning. Working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory (the three main types of memory) are all important to the processing of verbal and nonverbal data. If any of these are affected in any way, the ability to store and retrieve information — which is clearly vital to learning — can be hindered.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Although not specifically categorized as a learning disability, research shows that approximately 30–50 percent of people with ADHD also have a learning disability of one sort or another. Moreover, a learning disability and ADHD can interact to make learning highly challenging.
  • Dyspraxia: Dyspraxia causes people to have difficulties in muscle control. This leads to challenges in terms of movement and coordination as well language and speech, both of which can affect learning. It is not specifically a learning disability, but dyspraxia is often seen in conjunction with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or ADHD.
  • Executive functioning: This refers to a lack of efficiency in cognitive systems within the brain involved in planning, organizing, strategizing, attention, and time management. Weakness in executive functioning is nearly always present in people who also have learning disabilities or ADHD.

This is a long list of intellectual and information-processing challenges, any one of which can cause significant difficulties for anyone who suffers from it. Moreover, these disabilities are often co-occurring, leading to even higher roadblocks to effective learning.

Learning Disorders and Substance Abuse

Long haired man smoking marijuana joint while holding beer bottle

The presence of one or more learning disabilities (or related conditions, such as ADHD) can potentially lead to substance abuse.

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, learning disabilities and substance abuse overlap “significantly.” Limited information is known about the precise nature of the relationship between learning disabilities and substance abuse, but it is clear that learning disabilities increase the chances of abuse.

This may be because the risk factors for substance abuse have many similarities to the effects of various learning disabilities: lowered self-esteem, difficulties in academic achievement, loneliness, depression, and a desire for social acceptance. The theory behind the link between the two is that learning disabilities generate the types of behaviors that typically lead to substance abuse.

Some studies show that the links between the two may be even stronger. Think of it in terms of decision-making. Generally, there are three key steps to making a decision. First, you examine and frame the problem. Then, you apply a specific value to the different options or possible outcomes. After weighing those, you decide. People unaffected by learning disabilities or substance abuse issues tend to approach decision-making on a very rational basis: They make their choice based on the best available option. But those with learning disorders and those struggling with substance abuse have this decision-making process clouded.

Are Substance Abuse and Learning Disorders Linked?

Why is it that people with addictions seem to ignore the future consequences of the decisions they make in terms of what to take into their bodies? It doesn’t seem rational to choose a course of action (overindulging in drugs or alcohol) that leads to so many negative consequences.

Some scientists believe addiction is linked to learning systems that give greater weight to pleasure, less weight to risk, and are responsible for a failure to learn from one’s previous poor choices. Substance abuse, therefore, distorts processes in the brain regarding expectations of pleasure and consequences in terms of release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Addiction, therefore, could be a sort of learning disorder.

People with learning disabilities are also theorized to have differences in the structures in their brains and in the chemical balance of the brain. Some studies have suggested that up to 60 percent of people in substance abuse treatment also have a learning disability. According to the National Resource on ADHD, 15.2 percent of adults with ADHD also have issues with substance abuse.

Treatment Options

teenagers receiving help from psychology specialist psychotherapy

It seems clear that identifying learning disabilities early in life will allow parents and educators to address specific learning challenges and be able to mitigate them to as great a degree as possible. Moreover, substance abuse treatment for those with learning disabilities is most effective when it is tailored to address both conditions at the same time.

By identifying and treating learning disorders at the earliest opportunity, it may be possible for many people to avoid falling into substance abuse as a way of dealing with the loneliness, low self-esteem, and depression that often accompanies a learning disability. Addressing the learning challenges may very well prevent the development of an addiction later on.

One challenge to recovery for substance abusers with learning disabilities is that these very same deficits in acquiring and processing information may make it more difficult for them to learn about their addiction or effectively take in the knowledge and guidance being passed on by the medical and/or social services teams involved in their recovery. Those with auditory processing disorder, for instance, may have trouble understanding the instructions or encouragement given to them by care providers.

But if an integrated approach to recovery is taken, with team members aware of the unique challenges facing those with substance addictions and learning disabilities, the prospects for long-term recovery are greatly enhanced.

Last Updated on July 12, 2021
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.
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