Report Roundup: Substance Abuse and Learning Disabilities: Peas in a Pod or Apples and Oranges?

November 1, 2000

This white paper describes the indirect relationship that has been identified thus far between learning disabilities and substance abuse. The paper grew out of a 1999 conference in New York City hosted by CASA, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Although conferees were unable to determine the exact nature of the link between learning disabilities and substance abuse, they agreed that there is enough evidence that such a link exists to alert parents, pediatricians and teachers that children with learning disabilities may be at higher risk of substance abuse than are other children. Conferees came up with two prescriptions: Learning disabilities must be identified and dealt with as early as possible, thus decreasing the likelihood of low self-esteem, social difficulties and poor academic performance, all of which may increase the risk of substance abuse; and children with learning disabilities who are also substance abusers should receive treatment that deals with both problems.

The links between learning disabilities and substance abuse identified by the paper are as follows: Risk factors for adolescent substance abuse are very similar to the behavioral effects of learning disabilities (including loneliness, depression and an especially strong desire for social acceptance); children whose mothers used drugs or alcohol while pregnant with them are likely to have learning disabilities, and children growing up with substance-using parents are more likely to use illicit substances themselves; and children with learning disabilities are twice as likely to have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and about half of those with ADD “self-medicate” with illicit drugs and alcohol. Better understanding this relationship, the authors conclude, will require studies large enough to identify distinct trends linking different types of learning disabilities with substance abuse. 43 pages. $10. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, 633 Third Ave., 19th Fl., New York, NY 10017. (212) 841-5200.

"Substance Abuse and Learning Disabilities: Peas in a Pod or Apples and Oranges?" Report Roundup. Youth Today, November 2000, p. 48.

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