Author: Dr. Sam Goldstein, Ph.D

The daily demands and forces that affect adults, though different from those affecting children, are nonetheless significant. From the perspective of learning disabilities we all agree that children with learning disabilities grow up to be adults with learning disabilities. The consequences of their learning disability, however, change. The arena shifts from school to work and community. The implications become more significant. The child with learning disabilities may rely on family and school for support. The adult with learning disabilities, however, often struggles to find a support system. Therefore, adults with learning disabilities may be at increased risk to develop emotional problems and specific psychiatric disorders as a consequence of their learning disability in the adult years.

Professionals need to recognize the logical consequence of increased feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, lower self-esteem and lack of assertive skills that arise as the result of living day in and day out with a handicapping disability, particularly one that for many adults with learning disabilities, was either inadequately identified or not identified, and was even less likely to have been treated. I urge my fellow mental health clinicians, counselors and advocates to do the following:

  • Recognize and accept that a child with a learning disability grows up to become an adult with a learning disability.
  • Listen carefully to what our clients and patients say.
  • Obtain careful childhood histories, as those individuals with learning disabilities and psychiatric problems in childhood likely continue to have both problems in adulthood.
  • Do not assume that all individuals with histories of learning disabilities will experience emotional problems but recognize that all will be affected to some extent.
  • Reasonably assume that most individuals with learning disabilities have had a much more difficult life course emotionally and are more likely to experience feelings of low self-esteem.
  • Adults with learning disabilities can and do experience more life and vocational problems than others. For some, these problems are invasive and intrusive. For others, they are fairly subtle.
  • Many individuals with learning disabilities use other strengths to compensate for their disabilities and develop a variety of coping strategies, allowing them to function well in every day life.
  • Listen carefully when taking a history. An undiagnosed learning disability may, in some individuals, represent a significant variable to explain the course of reported emotional problems.

With increased community acceptance and recognition that learning disabilities represent a life time phenomenon, medical, mental health and educational professionals are going to find themselves supporting and treating more and more of these individuals. As adult learning disabilities become popular, these individuals are also excellent targets for the marketing of all kinds of fads, mythical treatments, and unproven remedies.

Knowledgeable professionals can offer their patients and clients a powerful sense of hope by being available and providing accurate information, understanding, and support. Although much of the science in adult learning disabilities remains in the future, common sense and clinical judgment can offer great help today.