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How common are specific learning difficulties?

The number of children who have a specific learning difficulty is unknown. To determine this it would be necessary to carry out a thorough survey in which all the children in a population were carefully assessed to detect those who had any form of specific learning difficulty. This has not been done. However, there have been surveys to detect difficulties in individual areas of learning. This allows one to piece together some estimate of the frequency of the condition as a whole.

In this way it can be estimated that about 10 per cent of children have some form of specific learning difficulty. The most commonly involved areas of learning are reading, language, attention, and motor coordination. These occur in approximately equal proportions.

There is some evidence that certain specific learning difficulties are less common in some countries. This may be because of differences in the way data are collected, or it may reflect genetic differences. It may also be a result of differences in the education system. Certain characteristics of the language may play a part in some countries. For example, the low stated prevalence of specific reading difficulty in Japan may be related to the nature of the Japanese writing system, which does not require the same degree of phonological skills as, for example, English.

Fortunately, mild forms of specific learning difficulty are far more common than severe forms. For example, only about two per cent of children with specific reading difficulty have a severe form of this condition.

Boys are approximately three times more likely to be affected by any form of specific learning difficulty. This is thought to be a consequence of certain genes on the X chromosome (see Chapter 3).

It is often stated that specific learning difficulty is a ‘middle-class’ disorder, but this is not the case. Surveys have generally found a constant frequency of affected children across the full range of socioeconomic categories. The impression that middle-class children are more frequently affected may have arisen because parents from disadvantaged families are less likely to seek help for their child’s poor school attainments. It is also possible that middle-class parents, with their greater emphasis on academic achievement, are more likely to seek an excuse for their child’s poor attainments. They may, therefore, use the term ‘dyslexia’ too readily. Used in this way, the term will cease to have any meaning. This is why proper diagnosis is essential.

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