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learning disabilities in children

Learning Disabilities Are Nothing to Fear

I am the father of a wonderful, 12-year old girl. She was born full-term, with no problems and was an absolute bundle of joy for our family. She hit all her developmental markers on time and even spoke full sentences by the time she was 2.5 years. But we struggled through the years after that; she and I spent hours working together on school work, with little progress, much to my frustration as a parent. It wasn’t until the end of grade two, when the school decided to keep her back, that I realized, Riya had a learning disability.

I was heartbroken, I had a million thoughts; what did I do wrong? Why is the school doing this to me? Was I bad father for not realising how serious her disability was? Why didn’t the school say anything earlier? Is it too late for her to catch up? How will she deal with this? I realised my child had ‘failed,’ and I could do nothing about it. To move forward, she needed professional help.

What are learning disabilities?

Riya is hardly alone; roughly 13 to 14% of all school-going kids in India struggle with a variety of disabilities that may influence their ability to retain, acquire, understand, use or organise both verbal and non-verbal information. They tend to interfere with daily life and cause difficulties when it comes to time management, social interaction and social perception.

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It is important to note that these are not intellectual disabilities; a child with a learning disability can also be highly intelligent or gifted. Learning disabilities are congenital, meaning children are, quite simply, born with certain underdeveloped parts of the brain – caused by a wide range of factors, from genetics to certain medications to vitamin deficiencies.

There are four types of learning disabilities, which can affect children on a spectrum of mild to severe:

  • Dyslexia is characterised by difficulty processing spoken and written language, difficulty spelling, slower working memory, and slower speed at which one can name aloud images, colours and symbols. It usually occurs in school going children.
  • Dysgraphia is when an individual has difficulty with written expression. There are three types of dysgraphia: dyslexic dygraphia, in which spontaneous writing is illegible, but drawing and copying are normal; motor dysgraphia, in which motor problems cause illegible spontaneous or copied writing; and spatial dyspraphia, in which a poor understanding of space causes too large or too small writing.
  • Dyscalculia is when an individual faces difficulty working out arithmetic operations and related concepts. This often translates to problems with concepts of time, money and direction, and poor ability to visualize maps and diagrams.
  • Dyspraxia is characterised by problems with fine motor skills. An individual may struggle with hand –eye coordination, control of movement, planning or execution of complex movements. They may also have problems balance, posture, speech and tactile discomfort.

Unfortunately, learning disabilities in children are seldom identified early on. Few schools fully realize or employ trained professionals who can look out for warning signs, encourage remedial intervention, counselling and allied therapy, and explain their impact to families.

The result of an unaddressed learning disability is often emotional, psychological or behavioural difficulties for the child. Kids with learning disabilities deal with increased stress and anxiety, and low self-esteem and confidence. They may even have poor life skills. In part because of this, more than one-third of students with learning disabilities drop out of school before grade 12.

  Read about one mom’s journey to support her daughter’s dyslexia

However, the earlier children’s learning difficulties are identified, the more therapists can capitalize on the students’ neuroplasticity and help them improve memory, cognitive functioning, processing and thinking. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability (never greater than during youth) to change neural and learning pathways in response to different stimuli; special and remedial education can aid in building these new learning pathways, which help children with learning disabilities cope more effectively.

Therefore, parents should watch for these signs of learning disabilities in a child’s early years:

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Missing words in sentences
  • Tight or odd pencil grip and body position
  • Short attention span
  • Poor listening skills and motor coordination
  • Difficulty organising thoughts
  • Incorrect grammar
  • Confusion with left right
  • Trouble following rules or instructions
  • General disorganisation
  • Inconsistent behaviour and work
  • Reversals and rotation of alphabets
  • Exceptional intelligence or giftedness
  • Exceptional ability in sports, arts, science and verbalisation

If you notice these signs in your child, it is imperative that you seek professional help as early as possible. This ensures the prognosis is much better and coping and corrective strategies can be put to work while your child’s brain is still maturing.

What you can do for your child?

Every parent places high hopes and dreams on their child. We expect and want our children to be “perfect.” While this idea of perfection differs from parent to parent, it is deeply rooted in our belief systems – and therefore is almost an obsessive and selfish thought process; we want our kids to have what we couldn’t and do what we were not able to. This can set up highly unrealistic expectations and foster a feeling of unacceptance in children who are struggling to learn. And it’s why most parents go through a phase of denial, disbelief, doubt and blame even as they intuit something is not right with their child.

Try to heed this intuition, instead of the other emotions. Seek a professional with whom you can confide and set realistic expectations and goals; this will ensure you don’t battle with yourself or other close to you. Also:

  • Get the required tests done, specifically to identify academic lags and IQ. This helps understand the child’s weakness and strengths. Get medical tests done — two, specifically: audiometric and ophthalmological tests, to rule out any medical issues.
  • Form a multi-disciplinary team for teachers, psychiatrists, psychologists and allied therapists that you can trust and work together to get the best help moving forward.
  • Schedule a follow-up case discussion and parental counselling session after your child’s evaluation, so that treatment plans can be clearly understood and executed.
  • Talk to your child’s school about potential exemptions and concessions to facilitate your child’s ability to learn.
  • Structure a home environment that supports your child as he or she learns to manage time and enact effective learning and studying strategies.
  • Do not get frustrated; change takes time and perseverance. While you’re working toward it with your child, foster positive feelings of confidence, hope and self-esteem without comparing his/her performance with any other child.
  • Try to trust the team you have chosen, rather than hop from doctor to doctor. This will ensure consistent and guided treatment, with effective results.
  • Don’t compromise on free time, play time and extracurricular activities. These are necessary for your child’s development, too.
  • Don’t become consumed by your child’s learning disability and neglect yourself. Your own mental health and peace of mind is vital for your child’s betterment.

Finally, and most importantly: answer your child’s questions about his or her own disability in an intelligent and age-appropriate manner. Let them know that they are not alone and that you will help them cope with the disability together, as a team. Encourage their independence and remind them that their disability is not their identity.

Someday, your child will grow up and leave to explore the world on their own; you want to ensure that, when they do, they know, like my Riya, that every problem can be solved and challenges can be overcome.

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