Deconstructing Learning Disabilities: Why All Children with Learning Challenges are Unique
Every child with learning disabilities or challenges presents differently. Taking steps to dismantle myths about the most common learning differences will better equip us to appreciate and help the children that need it most.
It is essential to offer appropriate support and understanding to every child. Otherwise, children with learning disabilities can easily end up setting low expectations for themselves. Once this occurs, it’s easy for them to become apathetic about their education, or worse, their future.
Research and evidence-based instruction on learning difficulties has progressed a great deal over the last few years. However, our general knowledge on and perception of learning difficulties has not. Gaining a more accurate understanding of the immense spectrum of these issues will help our community immeasurably.
Understanding Invisible Learning Disabilities
Many learning disabilities are invisible, which makes it difficult for parents and teachers to understand how and why a child might be struggling. This contributes to widely held views about the different ways kids exhibit behaviours, or cope with their diagnosis.
It is rare for two kids with the same diagnosis to endure challenges in exactly the same way. It’s important to examine some of the most common stigmas attributed to youth once they’re given a label or a diagnosis.
The stigmas that have been attached to these diagnoses over the years have had a deeply negative effect on both parents and children alike. Whether your child exhibits these common traits or not, it’s important to understand that every child is different. We should never make assumptions based on the most common denominator.
The negative stigmas and stereotypes attached to youth with learning challenges can most likely be attributed to societal realities. There is a significant and stubborn part of our population that believes learning differences are simply excuses for laziness and poor parenting and seeks to push them out of the realm of “acceptable” conditions.
Today, let’s debunk some of the myths surrounding invisible learning disabilities. Ultimately, this will allow us to shift the level of acceptance for those suffering the destructive effects of these learning challenges.
“My child can’t be dyslexic because she knows her Ds from her Bs”
This is a very basic symptom of dyslexia. In reality, over 80% of learning-to-read difficulties are caused by weak phonemic awareness (the cognitive ability to blend, break down, and analyse different sounds).
“She isn’t dyslexic. She can read when she wants to, she just doesn’t always try hard enough”
Learning disabilities are not and should not be seen as character flaws. Children with learning differences devote so much extra time to schoolwork and are typically trying very hard to succeed. These kids expend a vast amount of energy and brainpower on simple tasks, as compared to their neurotypical peers.
It’s a spelling problem:
“My child gets her weekly spelling tests correct each week, and never makes spelling mistakes. She can’t be dyslexic.”
The International Dyslexia Association defines this condition as a “specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”
These difficulties can manifest in various ways, including when reading out loud, reading new words, or pronouncing words correctly.
Some common symptoms include:
- Difficulty transferring text to speech, and vice versa.
- Struggling to pronounce new words.
- Difficulty distinguishing similarities and differences in words. (no, on).
- Poor letter sound discrimination (pin, pen).
- Low reading comprehension.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Only boys have autism:
“I thought my daughter couldn’t be autistic.”
A massive misconception about autism among genders does exist. Boys are five times more likely than girls to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, this can be explained by research, which shows that girls are more tolerant of neurodevelopmental mutations in utero than boys.
Therefore, when only mild abnormalities exist, most girls won’t develop autism. However, girls are not exempt from ASD, and often are diagnosed much later in life. This may be because their symptoms are usually less severe, or because they are better at disguising their autistic traits in an effort to fit in with their peers.
Poor eye contact:
“She can’t be autistic; she has great eye contact.”
Many kids with autism develop coping mechanisms so that they appear to have good eye contact. They have learned that adults expect them to make eye contact, so they work hard to give the impression that they’re doing exactly that. However, they can often be looking just beyond you, or may pick another point on your face to fixate on.
For people with ASD, making eye contact is another form of social pressure that at times can feel overwhelming, especially to someone struggling to keep up with the conversation in a socially new, or sensory overloaded place where there are many other distractions.
If they are not giving you full eye contact, then they are not paying attention:
“Please turn around and face me! Look at me when I speak to you!”
This is another common demand placed on children who are, in fact, not trying to be rude at all. Their lack of eye contact when being spoken to is not always a sign of their inherent desire to ignore you or your instructions. In fact, it is the contrary.
Kids with autism who appear to be daydreaming and not paying attention in class find it very taxing to listen and process information while having to maintain eye contact with their teacher. They are processing the information just fine and may process it even better if they are given the space to look away while listening.
People with autism don’t want friends:
“Don’t ask her to join us, she wants to be alone.”
Those with autism do struggle with social skills, which may make it difficult to interact with peers. This can make them seem shy or unfriendly. That’s because they’re unable to communicate their desire for relationships in the same way as their neurotypical peers.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD/ADD)
Kids who fidget a lot or cannot sit still must have ADHD:
“He is being so disruptive and is always wriggling around.”
ADHD is often associated with images of boisterous kids bouncing off the walls. Hyperactivity coupled with impulsivity is common in one type of ADHD, but these are not the only symptoms of ADHD, as there are three different types of this disorder.
Some children have inattentive ADHD, and their symptoms present entirely differently. They may be the daydreamers, be distractible, or easily bored. They may also have trouble paying attention or staying focused, especially when they are not interested or motivated by the task at hand.
Medication is the answer:
“If I put my child on drugs they’ll be ‘fixed’, right?”
A pill or medication cannot cure ADHD. It is a complex brain-based disorder that affects so many aspects of development. While medication can help manage some core symptoms by increasing focus and decreasing impulsivity or inattention, these medications cannot improve the wider symptoms of the disorder, such as:
- organisational skills
- social skills
- time management abilities
- and self-esteem
The Greatest Myth of All
Finally, the biggest myth we’ll cover today applies to EVERY type of learning disability.
This is temporary:
“She’ll outgrow this, or can be cured of it in time”
Learning disabilities cannot be cured, and children will never outgrow them. They are multifaceted, arising from neurological differences in brain structure, and the complexities of each disorder affect vast areas of a child’s day-to-day life. The wider implications of many learning differences include the inability to follow multi-step instructions, being forgetful, or switching from task to task before completion.
Supporting Children with Learning Differences
With the correct evidence-based interventions, many children do learn and discover ways to compensate for their challenges. They develop coping mechanisms (often quite quickly when in compassionate and understanding environments) and they can learn strategies not just to live, but to thrive in a neurotypical society.
Lifting the dark clouds of doom and gloom associated with stigmas and stereotypes will enable kids to learn to navigate life by capitalizing on their strengths and bypassing their weaknesses.
Most importantly, we must remember that one way of learning is not right or better than the other. Brains are wired differently, and when we can accept this, we can provide greater space for our youth with learning differences to let their own light shine.