SIG “Developmental and Learning Disabilities from a Brain Perspective”

Organization: Dr. Elena Galeano-Keiner, Prof. Dr. Marcus Hasselhorn, Prof. Dr. Yee Lee Shing

Developmental and learning disabilities are associated with deficits in various aspects of behavior, learning, and cognition. Children with persistent learning difficulties in school are in some cases formally diagnosed as suffering from a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or language development disorder. Others are diagnosed with a related developmental disorder that often accompanies learning problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder. Deviations from “normal” development are classified when thresholds are undershot or overshot and/or defined by diagnostic criteria which are met in sufficient numbers or intensity. However, impairments often vary widely in scope and severity and are often associated with other behavioral problems. Children who exhibit learning difficulties often receive either multiple diagnoses or no diagnosis, which can severely impact the daily lives and quality of life of affected children and their families.

Even in more recent clinical classification systems, individual disorder categories are still not considered in a very differentiated way. For example, for dyscalculia, central aspects such as difficulties in basal numerical skills (e.g., quantities and size concepts, numbers and quantity relations) are not taken into account for the diagnosis. Additional information on the significance of the degree of severity and the course is not listed. Interventions that appropriately address the individual disorder profile can thus not be implied.

Causes and risk factors for developmental disorders are rather heterogeneous, but with a close relation to neural development. In the neurodevelopmental continuum model, developmental disorders are not viewed as separate entities, but are mapped as expressions or endpoints of impaired brain development within a continuum. Assumptions of the model are based on research suggesting common underlying genetic disease factors and environmental risk factors of developmental disorders.

The SIG presented here reviews and discusses recent research findings on the neurobiological basis of developmental and learning disabilities and their comorbidity. Improved understanding of the causes may prove to be the basis for increased intervention effectiveness. The following guiding questions will be pursued from different perspectives of the disciplines of Medicine, Psychology and Education: What are current challenges in the diagnostics of developmental and learning disorders? To what extent are the disabilities represented by a dimensional character of symptom expression and composition as well as neurobiological underpinnings? How can overlaps between the putative categories and variability within the individual diagnoses be described? What role do intra-individual variations in severity and symptom expression play? In the individual sessions, current research findings on the main topics are presented and discussed.

Guest lectures by experts in the field of developmental and learning disorders take place at regular intervals.