Can We Get Social Security Benefits for a Child With Learning Disabilities?

Many parents wonder whether their child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability will qualify for disability benefits through the SSI program. The answer is that it depends on the severity of the learning disability, the degree to which it interferes with the child's daily functioning, and how well the condition and its related limitations are documented.

Learning Disabilities and Social Security Law

While children's Social Security cases are generally harder to win than adult cases, disability benefits may be available for children under 18 who suffer from serious physical or mental impairments. A child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability will be eligible for benefits if he or she suffers from "marked" or "extreme" functional limitations that are expected to last at least a year.

Children with learning disabilities typically struggle to keep pace academically with their peers. They may require more time to learn new concepts and acquire new skills. It is not uncommon for children with learning disabilities to score well below average on standardized tests. If a child's learning disabilities are severely limiting a child's ability to learn, complete tasks, and interact with others, Social Security may recognize that child as having a compensable disability. But only the most severely affected children can expect to be granted disability benefits.

A significant fraction of children with learning disabilities have also been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or a speech disorder. For those children with more than one diagnosis, Social Security will consider the combination of all their impairments in deciding whether to approve or deny their claim for benefits.

How Social Security Evaluates a Child's Limitations

For a child with a learning disability to be considered disabled, he or she must be found to suffer at least one "extreme" impairment or at least two "marked" impairments in the following areas of functioning:

  • learning and applying information
  • paying attention to and finishing tasks
  • interacting and relating with others
  • moving about and manipulating objects
  • caring for oneself, or
  • health and physical well-being.

A "marked" limitation, according to Social Security's regulations, is one that seriously interferes with a child's ability to start or finish activities. It is a "more than moderate, but less than extreme" limitation. A child with learning disabilities who scores between two and three standard deviations below the mean on standardized testing would be found to have a marked limitation.

"Extreme" limitations are defined as interfering "very seriously" with a child's ability to independently start or finish activities. Test scores that are at least three standard deviations below the mean generally indicate an extreme limitation.

Proving a Learning Disability Is Disabling

The most persuasive evidence to show the severity of a learning disability will be the child's IQ scores, grades, and reports from teachers, counselors, and physicians. For children enrolled in special education classes, obtaining the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is also helpful in presenting a fuller picture of the child's level of impairment. (And note that a Social Security regulation (SSR 09-2p) specifically provides that children in special education who achieve good grades or reach the goals set out in their IEP plan may still qualify for disability benefits.)

In cases involving learning disabilities, the SSA is particularly interested in the opinions of medical professionals, primarily psychiatrists and psychologists, about the child's level of functioning. It is often helpful to request that the medical professional fill out a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form or write a letter to send to Social Security. The psychiatrist or psychologist should state the child's diagnosis and address the following issues.

  • Is the child's dependence on others for personal needs grossly in excess of age-appropriate dependence?
  • Does the child exhibit a severe impairment in cognitive or communicative function?
  • Does the child have severe difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace?
  • Does the child have severe limitations in learning and using new information?
  • Does the child have severe impairment in self-care, including feeding, dressing, and personal hygiene?
  • Does the child show severe difficulties in social functioning?

The more the doctor explains his or her answers, the more likely Social Security is to agree with the conclusions reached.

Letters from teachers, counselors, and even parents can be helpful if they focus on the person's observations and experiences with the child. It is best for these folks to avoid in-depth discussions of the child's medical issues, or any opinion regarding whether the child is "disabled." The SSA generally deems those topics to be beyond the expertise of school employees and parents.

To further aid Social Security in assessing the severity of the child's learning disability, the SSA will usually schedule an appointment for the child to undergo a consultative examination (CE) with one of Social Security's doctors. These exams are extremely important and should not be missed. Social Security will often, but not always, give great weight to the opinions of the consulting doctor.

Qualifying for Disability Based on a Low IQ Score

Under Social Security regulations, a child with a learning disability may also qualify for benefits based on a low IQ score. A valid verbal, performance, or full-scale IQ test of 59 or below will qualify a child for benefits. If a child scores from 60 to 70 on such a test, he or she will likely be found disabled if there is an additional physical or mental impairment that significantly limits the child's functioning. For more infrmation, see Nolo's article on disability and low IQ.

Social Security vs. SSI

Note that children who apply for benefits based on their own disability are eligible only for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), not Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Because SSI, unlike SSDI, is a needs-based program, Social Security will take the child’s household income into account in determining whether the child is eligible for benefits. If the combined income of the child and the parents residing with the child exceeds Social Security's threshold, the child will not receive benefits, regardless of the severity of his or her learning disability.

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