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Can a Learning Disorder Impair Addiction Recovery?

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Can a Learning Disorder Impair Addiction Recovery?

The National Center for Learning Disabilities describes disabilities as a group of disorders in which the brain struggles to receive, process, react to and communicate information. Specific examples include dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, aphasia and auditory or visual processing disorder. Individuals with learning disabilities (LD) may be intelligent, but they struggle to absorb and apply new information that they learn. These are not intellectual disabilities like mental retardation that are easier to identify, and recognizing LD early is important so that steps can be taken to overcome the challenges that the disability presents. The lifelong condition can motivate substance abuse, and if addiction occurs, it can impair the recovery process. Addiction patients commonly have co-occurring disorders, however, and most rehabilitation centers can provide integrated treatment for both the substance abuse and the disability.

In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported findings from 1997 to 2008 that suggest nearly eight percent of US children have a learning disability. The PBS website says experts are not sure what causes learning disabilities, but possibilities may include the following:

Can a Learning Disorder Impair Addiction Recovery?
  • Genetic heritage as LD often runs in the family
  • Injuries or illness during pregnancy and/or birth
  • Incidents that occur after birth like head injuries

Some experts suggest a combination of factors may contribute to most LDs, though suggestions that economic or cultural issues cause the disorder are misinformed stereotypes that promote negative stigmas. There are several signs of a learning disorder including the following:

  • Difficulties pronouncing words, following directions or learning routines
  • Problems learning basic reading, writing, math, language or motor skills
  • Struggles with reading comprehension, organizational skills and spelling
  • Inability to learn and advance in classroom settings despite a sincere effort

Citing statistics from 1995 the National Center for Education Statistics found that student dropout rates were nearly 18% for youth with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, many of these dropouts may have quit school not realizing they had a disability, and both the disability and the lack of higher education increase their risk of substance abuse. The American Psychological Association in 2001 highlighted key points from a study on addiction and learning disabilities including the following:

  • The report found a possible link between learning disabilities and substance abuse.
  • Low self-esteem, academic difficulties, loneliness, depression and a desire for social acceptance are major risk factors for adolescent substance abuse.
  • These same risk factors are common behavioral effects of learning disabilities and may indirectly motivate substance abuse.

Further complicating the situation is a growing consensus that addiction itself may be a learning and memory disorder. The European Journal of Pharmacology argued in 1999 that addiction is a dopamine-dependent learning disorder in which repeated substance abuse creates stimulus-reward associations in the brain’s nucleus accumbens. Likewise, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study in 2011 that demonstrated how substance abuse works on the subconscious mind. Drugs and alcohol may inhibit conscious memories like what happened during a drinking binge, but they also enhance synaptic plasticity in a key area of the brain. The net effect is that substance abuse teaches the subconscious to consume more drugs and alcohol while simultaneously making the brain more receptive to forming substance-reward memories. Dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure that comes from substance use, but an author of the study added that the neurotransmitter is equally involved in the learning process.

When it comes to addiction recovery, a learning disability may impair a patient’s ability to understand and apply therapeutic principles and ideas. Does this mean people with LD cannot be helped? Not at all. Rehabilitation centers typically screen for co-occurring disorders, including LD and a host of other potential conditions, and customize integrated treatment plans that address all the necessary issues. By empowering patients to deal with their LDs, treatment centers also empower them in their recoveries. In fact some treatment centers specialize in addiction, learning disabilities and related issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Rehabilitation centers provide various treatments best suited to particular disabilities, and addiction-related services can potentially include the following:

  • Supervised detox with tapered dosage reductions for certain drugs
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) targets maladaptive thought patterns and beliefs
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to balance self-acceptance with the need to change
  • Tools to identify people, places, emotions, situations and other substance-use triggers
  • Strategies to avoid, mitigate and/or cope with drug and alcohol cravings
  • Motivational therapies that help patients foster personal ambition to change
  • Holistic options that minimize withdrawal symptoms and promote overall wellness

The development of social support networks is a foundational element for recovery. Treatment centers begin the process with supportive group therapies and then help patients connect with support groups and recovery sponsors in their hometowns. The ongoing aftercare support would also apply to all co-occurring disabilities and disorders.

Our admissions coordinators can help. We are available 24 hours a day to discuss treatment options, answer any questions and even check health insurance plans for benefits. We can also provide assistance if you are experiencing setbacks in your recovery. If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, please call our toll-free helpline now.

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