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Research Trends: Is There a Link Between LD and Juvenile Delinquency?

Will having a learning disability lead your child to a life of delinquency? An expert summarizes what the research says - and the news is good!

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

What's new in the world of research related to children with learning and attention difficulties? In this summary of current peer-reviewed research, Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., shares his expert perspective in practical terms for parents like you.

There has been a lot of discussion in professional publications as well as the popular press about the link between learning disabilities (LD) and juvenile delinquency. In some instances, this connection has been emphasized to such an extent that many people have come to believe that all children with LD are at tremendous risk for becoming juvenile delinquents and criminals. Naturally this thought can be quite scary for parents of children with LD. But what exactly does the research say about this connection? Is the link as strong as many believe? The following article will address these questions. (Please note that this article focuses on LD and not AD/HD.)

Research Study Spotlight

The idea that a learning disability (LD) increases the risk of juvenile delinquency came from early anecdotal reports by professionals indicating that many delinquent youth had school problems1. In addition to initial anecdotal reports, a number of studies since the mid-1970s have found a "relatively large" number of individuals with LD in delinquent populations. However, the prevalence rates reported in these studies vary widely, ranging from 12% or less to as high as 70% or greater2. Most recently, the National Council on Disability (2003) estimated that approximately 30% of children in the juvenile justice system have LD3.

Unfortunately, the methods utilized to establish these prevalence rates have a number of flaws. These studies often used different and imprecise definitions of LD. Additionally, differing assessment criteria, techniques, and tests were used to determine whether an individual had LD4. As a result, the adolescent populations in these studies may have had very different kinds of problems, some of which may not actually have even been LD. The presence of school difficulties does not in and of itself indicate an LD. Furthermore, the youth in these studies - even if they did have LD - might also have suffered from additional disabilities such as emotional disturbance and behavioral disorders, conditions that could have more to do with delinquent behavior than did LD. Some researchers5 have also criticized these studies for not utilizing non-delinquent control groups. And, in studies that did use control groups, the groups may not have been comparable. (e.g., comparing institutionalized delinquent adolescents from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds with predominantly white, upper-middle class high school students). Without "balanced" comparisons it is difficult to accurately interpret prevalence rates.

In order to understand any possible cause and effect relationship, it is necessary to conduct longitudinal studies that follow children with LD into and through the adolescent years. To date, very few studies have done this. One study that used this approach6 followed a group of 51 male and female fifth-grade students with LD for a period of seven years and tracked delinquent activity. Results of the study indicated that the presence of LD in children did not prove to be a significant factor in predicting later delinquent behavior. Unlike some other studies, this study controlled for the influence of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In contrast to these findings, other longitudinal research7 followed 57 teen-age boys over two years and found a possible causal relationship between LD and juvenile delinquency. With the lack of consensus between such studies, it is hard to conclusively establish a causal link between LD and delinquency.

While it did not focus specifically on juvenile delinquency, my own 20-year longitudinal research8 indicated a relatively small percentage of delinquent behavior or criminal activity among adults, ages 28 to 35, who had been identified with LD during childhood and tracked over a 20-year period. After conducting extensive interviews and studying public records, we found only 3 of the 41 (7.3%) individuals in the study showed evidence of delinquent or criminal activity. In two of these cases, the individuals also had serious psychological disorders. However, this study did not include a non-LD comparison group, making the findings difficult to interpret.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.