Learning Disabilities & Risk of Substance Abuse

3 min read · 3 sections

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

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

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.

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