Living With a Learning Disability
Six-year-old David’s favorite part of the day is story time. He loves it when Mom reads to him, and he has no trouble remembering what he hears. But David has a problem. He cannot read for himself. In fact, any task that requires visual skill frustrates him.
Sarah is in her third year of school, yet her writing is unusually sloppy. Her letters are poorly formed, and some of them are written backward. Adding to her parents’ concern is the fact that Sarah has trouble even writing her own name.
Josh, a young teen, does well in every subject at school except math. The concept of numerical values completely baffles him. Just looking at numbers makes Josh angry, and when he sits down to do his math homework, his disposition rapidly deteriorates.
WHAT is wrong with David, Sarah, and Josh? Are they simply lazy, stubborn, perhaps slow-witted? Not at all. Each of these children is of normal to above-average intelligence. Yet, each one is also hampered by a learning disability. David suffers from dyslexia, a term that is applied to a number of reading problems. Sarah’s extreme difficulty with writing is called dysgraphia. And Josh’s inability to grasp the basic concepts of math is known as dyscalculia. These are just three learning disabilities. There are many more, and some experts estimate that altogether they affect at least 10 percent of the children in the United States.
Defining Learning Disabilities
Granted, at times most youths find learning to be a challenge. Usually, though, this does not indicate a learning disability. Instead, it simply demonstrates that all children have learning strengths and weaknesses. Some have strong hearing skills; they can absorb information quite well by listening. Others are more visually oriented; they learn better by reading. In school, however, students are clustered into a classroom and all are expected to learn regardless of the teaching method used. Hence, it is inevitable that some will have learning problems.
According to some authorities, however, there is a difference between simple learning problems and learning disabilities. It is explained that learning problems can be overcome with patience and effort. In contrast, learning disabilities are said to be more deep-rooted. “The learning disabled child’s brain seems to perceive, process, or remember certain kinds of mental tasks in a faulty manner,” write Drs. Paul and Esther Wender.*
Still, a learning disability does not necessarily mean that a child is mentally handicapped. To explain this, the Wenders draw an analogy with tone-deaf people, who cannot distinguish differences in musical pitch. “Tone deaf people are not brain-damaged and there is nothing wrong with their hearing,” Wenders write. “Nobody would suggest that tone deafness is due to laziness, poor teaching, or poor motivation.” It is the same, they say, with those who are learning disabled. Often, the difficulty focuses on one particular aspect of learning.
This explains why many children with learning disabilities have average to above-average intelligence; indeed, some are extremely bright. It is this paradox that often alerts doctors to the possible presence of a learning disability. The book Why Is My Child Having Trouble at School? explains: “A child with a learning disability is functioning two or more years below the expected level for his age and his assessed IQ.” In other words, the problem is not simply that the child has trouble keeping up with his peers. Rather, his performance is not on par with his own potential.
Providing Needed Help
The emotional effects of a learning disability often compound the problem. When children who are learning disabled do poorly in school, they may be seen as failures by their teachers and peers, perhaps even by their own family. Sadly, many such children develop a negative self-image that can persist as they grow. This is a valid concern, since learning disabilities generally do not go away.* “Learning disabilities are life disabilities,” writes Dr. Larry B. Silver. “The same disabilities that interfere with reading, writing, and arithmetic also will interfere with sports and other activities, family life, and getting along with friends.”
It is essential, therefore, that children with learning disabilities receive parental support. “Children who know that their parents are strong advocates for them have a basis for developing a sense of competency and self-esteem,” says the book Parenting a Child With a Learning Disability.
But to be advocates, parents must first examine their own feelings. Some parents feel guilty, as if they were somehow to blame for their child’s condition. Others panic, feeling overwhelmed by the challenges set before them. Both of these reactions are unhelpful. They keep the parents immobilized and prevent the child from getting the help he needs.
So if a skilled specialist determines that your child has a learning disability, do not despair. Remember that children with learning disabilities just need extra support in a specific learning skill. Take the time to become familiar with any programs that may be available in your area for children who are learning disabled. Many schools are better equipped to deal with such situations than they were years ago.
Experts emphasize that you should praise your child for any accomplishments, no matter how small. Be generous with commendation. At the same time, do not neglect discipline. Children need structure, and this is all the more true of those who are learning disabled. Let your child know what you expect, and hold to the standards you set.
Finally, learn to view your situation realistically. The book Parenting a Child With a Learning Disability illustrates it this way: “Imagine going to your favorite restaurant and ordering veal scallopini. When the waiter puts the plate in front of you, you discover rack of lamb. They’re both delicious dishes, but you were prepared for the veal. Many parents need to make a mental shift in their thinking. You might not have been prepared for the lamb, but you find it’s wonderful. So it is when you raise children with special needs.”
Some studies suggest that learning disabilities may have a genetic component or that environmental factors, such as lead poisoning or drug or alcohol use during pregnancy, may play a role. Still, the precise cause or causes are not known.
In some cases, children manifest a temporary learning disability because their development in some area is delayed. In time, such children outgrow the symptoms.