A self-organizing systems perspective of learning disabilities

Date of Completion

January 1997


Education, Educational Psychology|Education, Special|Psychology, Cognitive




A dilemma exists regarding the interpretation of learning disabilities. A self-organizing systems perspective suggests widespread, diffuse outcomes while a specific learning disability concept suggests more localized dysfunction.^ There may be very good reason to doubt the veridicality of the concept of a specific learning disability, not because learning disabilities itself is a frivolous concept as some have held but because the biologic or neurologic events that underlie a learning disability do not remain focal and constrained only to specific dysfunction.^ Because of the dynamic, self-organizing properties of the neurological system, any single insult may have effects that ripple through the system in unpredictable, nonlinear ways. Neurons that are connected distally to the impaired area will be affected since they will receive differential stimulation due to the inadequacy of the sending site. In an effort to recover, otherwise unimpaired areas of the brain will try to assume some responsibility for the impaired function, thereby "crowding" otherwise intact areas. Comorbidities might be thought of as distal manifestations of the same "specific" disabling event.^ It is important to know whether an identified learning disability remains contained or whether processing disorders might be found in other areas. The assessment profiles of school aged children identified with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NLD), assumed to have primarily right-hemispheric brain dysfunctions (N = 15), and subjects with Language-based Learning Disabilities (LLD), assumed to have primarily left-hemispheric brain dysfunctions (N = 15), were examined. Evaluations were performed across a wide range of processes. Frequency of problems other than those which characterize the classification are reported.^ Chi-square analyses revealed a greater than expected number of cases with processing disorders in unexpected areas for both the NLD and LLD groups. The NLD group had a greater number of cases than expected who had language processing problems. There were a greater number of NLD's than expected with two components of executive function (EF) and working memory (WM) problems. The LLD group had a greater number of cases than expected who had visuospatial processing and WM problems. Although a number of subjects with LLD had executive function problems, a significant portion did not exhibit such deficiencies. ^