Learning Disabilities and Drinking

Children with learning disabilities may be more likely to end up drinking, smoking and using drugs, according to research by Columbia University. But early recognition and treatment of their learning disabilities can prevent children from becoming substance abusers, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse says.

In a CASA news release researchers encouraged parents, teachers and pediatricians to increase efforts to identify and help these children, before their problems become more complicated and costly to treat.

The White Paper finds that learning disabilities -- conditions of the brain, such as dyslexia, that affect a person's ability to take in, process, or express information -- affect up to 10.8 million children, 20 percent of the nearly 54 million school-age children in the United States.

"As many as 20 percent of school age children may suffer from a learning disability," said Dr. Alan Leshner, Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse, who wrote the foreword to the report. "A large number of these children also suffer from a behavioral disorder. If there is reason to believe that these children may be more likely to take drugs, we need to know and we need to understand the relationship as thoroughly as possible."

The White Paper, Substance Abuse and Learning Disabilities: Peas in a Pod or Apples and Oranges? , grew out of a conference held in February 1999, sponsored by CASA, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Ira Harris Foundation.

Prevention First

The paper claims that two things are clear and demand immediate action:

To prevent substance abuse: it is imperative to identify learning disabilities in children as early as possible to deal with them promptly. This will reduce the likelihood that such children will drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or abuse drugs.

To treat substance abuse: for children who suffer from substance abuse and learning disabilities, treatment must be tailored to deal with both. Head Start and kindergarten, coach and counselor should be on the alert to the increased risk of substance abuse in children with learning disabilities," said Califano. "This puts a premium on early identification of learning disabilities and on attending to the reduced self-esteem, academic difficulties, loneliness and depression that, if left unattended, so often accompany them."

Substance abuse overlaps significantly with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders -- the most common are Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, and Conduct Disorder, CD -- which also affect up to 20 percent of school-age children.

There is a good deal of evidence that a correlation exists between between learning disabilities and substance abuse, but research has not defined a causal link between the two, the news release said. The paper calls for more research.

Risk Factors

The following information can help parents, teachers and others identify and help children with learning disabilities, according to CASA:

Risk factors for adolescent substance abuse are very similar to the behavioral effects of learning disabilities -- reduced self-esteem, academic difficulty, loneliness, depression and the desire for social acceptance. Thus learning disabilities may indirectly lead to substance abuse by generating the types of behavior that typically lead adolescents to abuse drugs.

A child with a learning disability is twice as likely to suffer Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as a member of the general population and there is a high incidence of ADD among individuals who abuse alcohol and drugs. It is known that as many as half of those suffering ADD self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

Children who are exposed to alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs in the womb are at higher risk for various developmental disorders including learning disabilities. A mother who uses drugs while pregnant may mean the child grows up in a home with a parent who is a substance abuser. This will also increase the risk that the child will abuse drugs or alcohol himself.

"Any one of these disorders can wreak havoc with families struggling to compensate for learning disorders, cope with behavior disorders or survive the devastating consequences of substance abuse and addiction, " said Califano. "Two or three together can devastate a family and mount a whopping tab for taxpayers."


updated 12/20/16