Substance Abuse & Learning Disabilities | CASAColumbia

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

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

Published: September 2000

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At the time of this study, learning disabilities affected nearly 11 million of the approximately 54 million American school-age children in the U.S. Some of the more common characteristics of learning-disabled children—reduced self-esteem, academic difficulty, loneliness, depression and the desire for social acceptance—closely mirror the risk factors for substance abuse.


This white paper grew out of a national conference held on February 1, 1999, in New York City, and included an extensive literature review.


This report found that addressing learning disabilities early in childhood may prevent children from using tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs. The report also called upon parents, teachers and pediatricians to step up efforts to identify and help these children. Children who were exposed to tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs in the womb were at higher risk for various developmental disorders, including learning disabilities, as well as substance use and addiction.

The evidence of a link between substance abuse, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders provides a framework for future research and signals the importance of increased awareness on the part of parents, physicians, teachers and treatment providers, as well as the research community, of this constellation of issues that may affect children’s health and functioning.


The report recommends immediate action on two fronts:

  1. To help prevent substance abuse, it is imperative to identify learning disabilities in children as early as possible and to deal with them promptly; doing so will help to reduce the likelihood that such children will engage in substance use
  2. Children with learning disabilities who engage in risky substance use and develop the disease of addiction must receive treatment specially tailored to their unique needs

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