Does Your Child Have Learning Problems?
Hundreds of thousands of children are being diagnosed as learning disabled. Is the label being misapplied to far too many children? How can you know if your child has a learning disability?
LEARNING DISABILITY is a term that has become popular in the last decade or so. It describes a variety of conditions that make it difficult for normally intelligent children to master one or more of the skills essential to learning. Such children have normal vision and hearing and no obvious physical handicap. Yet there is a gap between potential and achievement.
The cause? Unfortunately, research is inconclusive. But some findings point to a malfunctioning of one area or another of the brain caused by: trauma before, during or after birth; premature birth; disease of the mother during pregnancy; long labors or difficult deliveries. Thus, learning disabilities are often associated with minimal brain dysfunction. They may involve a defect in perception, that is, the child may have difficulty interpreting information coming in through his senses. There is also evidence that the problem may be hereditary, as indicated by the high incidence of boys over girls with this problem.
Signs and Symptoms
Whatever the cause, a child with learning disability has a very real problem. And it can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Of course, no single pattern of behavior typifies the learning-disabled child. No two children learn or behave in exactly the same way. Following are some of the symptoms, which can vary from mild to severe.
● Visual Perception Problems: “I can’t see the blackboard,” the child says. Yet vision tests reveal that he can see normally. Is he making excuses for poor work? Well, if he has a learning disability, he may have visual perception problems. That is, he may have difficulty interpreting what he sees. Although we see with our eyes, we understand what we see, not with our eyes, but with our brain.
Thus reading and writing may pose problems for him. In reading he may skip words. Words that begin with the same sound may be substituted one for another (“skip” for “skirt”). He may invert letters as he reads (“stop” for “spot”). In writing he may reverse letters (“b” for “d”) or whole words (“saw” for “was”).
● Auditory Perception Problems: “I didn’t hear you,” he replies when you ask him why he didn’t do what you said. Yet hearing tests reveal that he can hear normally. Did he really not hear you? Or is he being difficult, willfully disobedient?
If he has auditory perception problems, then in a sense he is deaf—internally. He may hear only jumbled-up versions of other people’s speech. The “static” that he hears confuses him and may cause him to react in an aggressive manner. If given several instructions, he may in actuality hear only one. But, then, at other times all are heard and perceived by his brain. A sort of hit-and-miss affair.
● Language Problems: We learn to express ourselves from the things we hear. But a child with auditory perception problems has probably never heard in the full or normal sense. As a result, he cannot express his own ideas well. Words and ideas sometimes get turned around. “Mommy, the car is going backward,” he may say. But the car is really going forward.
● Visual and Auditory Memory Problems: Visual and auditory memory difficulties often follow a child who has either visual or auditory perception problems. Thus, he may not be able to remember what he has been told orally, or the order in which he was told to do things. When a lack of visual memory exists, he will have trouble remembering what he reads and where he puts things.
● Lost in Time and Space: The child with a learning disability may be lost in space, that is, the concept of up-down, left-right, above-below or in-out. Simply put, how can he understand that the shelf is up above, if he doesn’t know for sure that his feet are down below? Or if you ask him to put the paper into the box, he puts it under the box.
He tends to have a poor concept of his own body; he cannot figure out how much space it takes up. As a result, he is frequently misjudging himself. Little wonder that he is often awkward and clumsy—far more than other children his own age.
His timing is usually off too. He seems bewildered by yesterday, today and tomorrow. You may wonder if he will ever learn the sequence of the days of the week or the months of the year.
● Poor Muscle Coordination: A learning-disabled youngster may also display a lack of fine motor skills. For him, cutting, coloring and drawing may be extremely difficult. He can’t tie his shoes, dress himself or cut his own food long after other children his own age have mastered these skills. Sports are difficult for him—he can’t coordinate the bat and the ball.
● Rigid and Inflexible: The learning-disabled child tends to become rigid and inflexible. He wants what he wants when he wants it, no matter what is going on around him. He doesn’t see the wholeness of things; he sees the details and misses the picture. He becomes extremely anxious when the normal routine is disrupted.
“Can’t You Do Something With That Child?”
Is it any wonder that such a child would be given to anger, frustration and temper tantrums? After all, he may “hear” and “see” only sketches of information. He may be uncoordinated and called stupid by his classmates. Worst of all, he is perhaps not understood by his parents or teacher.
Granted, it is not easy to live with a child whose perception and timing may be off so much of the time. Such a parent may be given to anxiety and frustration more often than other parents. Sadly, though, their plight often elicits criticism. “Can’t you do something with that child?” a critical onlooker may ask.
The parent may feel that something is wrong with his child, but he can’t figure out what. Yet, early detection is important. If untreated, such a child may become withdrawn and alienated, never reaching his full potential.
“Doctor, My Child Has All the Symptoms”
So a worried parent may say while clutching a magazine article about learning disabilities. Literally hundreds of thousands of children are being diagnosed as “learning disabled.” Some children, of course, truly are. But could it be that the label is being applied indiscriminately to far too many youngsters?
“Many children are being labelled LD [learning disabled] who are nothing of the kind,” says psychiatrist Thomas P. Millar. Why the mislabeling? “No-fault parenthood” is one reason, explains Millar. The anxious parent says: “The reason my child is not learning well is not that I have been an inadequate parent. No, the reason is that he has a learning disability.” But does he? Or could it be “parent disability”?
Or, perhaps, “teaching disability”? Says Dr. Barbara Bateman, a recognized authority on learning disabilities: “Learning disability has become an incredibly successful excuse for the failure of the public schools to adequately teach those children who truly need good teaching.”
Another commonly used term is hyperactivity (or, hyperkinesis), which is often associated with learning disabilities.* What is hyperactivity? According to a report published by the Academy of Orthomolecular Psychiatry, it is “physical activity which appears driven—as if there were an ‘inner tornado’—so that the activity is beyond the child’s control, as compared to other children.” The symptoms? Short attention span, easily distracted, impulsive movement from place to place, difficulty in concentrating on one thing, inability to sit still.
“That sounds like my child,” a parent may say. But don’t be hasty in diagnosing your child. The fact that he is restless, energetic or fidgety does not necessarily mean that he is hyperactive. There may be some other cause—allergy to a certain food, lack of sleep, or a hearing or vision problem.
Of course, learning disabilities along with hyperactivity are all too real, though the numbers may be exaggerated. What should you do if you suspect that your child has a learning disability? Seek professional advice. A child should not be labeled “learning disabled” until he has undergone careful testing.
Have a frank discussion with your child’s teacher. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be certain that it is a learning disability, not a teaching disability. Find out what it is and what can be done about it. Sometimes simply understanding a problem can help. Once the diagnosis has been made, then what?
It must be acknowledged that while a high percentage of learning-disabled children are hyperactive, not all hyperactive children have learning problems.
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