By Tim Johnson
October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, and with one in 10 Canadians affected, learning disabilities are an issue for many families. With assessment and disclosure now more common, the numbers are on the rise: according to Statistics Canada, learning disability (LD) rates for those 15 and older increased by 40 percent from 2001 to 2006, and for children aged five to 14, LDs are now the most common form of disability.
When faced with the possibility that their child may be dealing with an LD, many parents are confused about what steps they should take. “I’ve been there. You’re just so lost—you don’t even know what to ask for, because you’re so clued out about the whole subject,” says Judy Kerr, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and mother of two kids with learning disabilities. If you suspect that your child may have an LD, Kerr advises that you should meet with her teacher and compare notes. The next step is to seek an assessment—these can usually be completed within a school, although long queues have forced some families to seek private assessment, often at their own cost. (Some private assessments are not accepted by schools, so check before proceeding.) Once your child has been diagnosed with an LD, a meeting will take place between parents, teacher, the school principal and child, and an Individual Education Plan will be developed. This plan may include extra help from an educational assistant, program modifications, accommodations such as fewer questions on exams or the ability to complete tests in a quiet room, and perhaps the use of adaptive technologies such as a special computer program to help with reading. “You really need to be an advocate for your child, and to work cooperatively with schools to move things forward and come up with the best plan,” says Kerr.
To help you do so, we asked Dr. Anne Price, an educational psychologist and CEO of the Calgary Learning Centre, to define common disabilities, explain what signs to look for and to delineate the type of interventions that should take place if your child is diagnosed (see chart at right). She notes that parents should recognize that there’s no “cure,” adding that many undergo a process of grieving when their child is diagnosed. “The anxieties can be relieved a little bit, but the reality is that there will always be a new challenge, and the family is an integral player in supporting the child, finding resources, and putting key things in place.”
With Canadian children now being diagnosed with autism at a rate of one in 150, this condition is occupying an increasingly prominent place in the headlines — and on the minds of parents. Autism is poorly understood by many and actually has many faces, notes Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, co-director of the Autism Research Centre at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital and an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The diversity of this “spectrum disorder” extends well beyond the traditional diagnostic subgroups—such as Asperger’s syndrome—which vary by severity, age when symptoms first appear and language skills. “Although we think about these kids as being on a spectrum, that spectrum is probably multi-dimensional, and in fact every individual with autism is unique,” says Dr. Zwaigenbaum. “Kids who have severe challenges in one area may be quite able and have much milder symptoms in others.” Some may be socially withdrawn and nonverbal, and enact repetitive behaviours (the stereotypical picture of autism). “But there are many more children whose language development is not as severely delayed and in fact have large vocabularies and the ability to express themselves verbally, but may still struggle in conversation or be obsessed with particular topics or who may not recognize the importance of eye gaze or using gestures as part of communicating with other people,” says Dr. Zwaigenbaum. Others may be outgoing but miss social cues, cope well with day-to-day changes in routine but get stuck on a particular topic or activity, struggle with bright lights or loud sounds, or display any number of other behaviours.
Early intervention is key, says Dr. Zwaigenbaum, and although a true diagnosis may not be possible until the age of two (or later), he says that some signs may be visible as early as 14 to 18 months. He adds that parents shouldn’t believe the hype about supposed links between immunizations and autism (despite what actress Jenny McCarthy says). “There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that suggests that the rate of autism in kids who are vaccinated is no higher than kids who aren’t vaccinated,” says Dr. Zwaigenbaum.
Teachers on the frontlines are in a great position to assist parents in developing effective habits for their kids. We asked Jillian Sanders, a K–8 special education resource teacher in Peterborough, Ont., and Mark Bailey, a high school French immersion social studies teacher in Dunrobin, Ont., for the most appropriate strategies.
For Elementary Students
On how to maximize potential in class:
On how to instill self-discipline:
On what to do if a problem arises:
For High School Students
On how to maximize potential in class:
On how to instill self-discipline
On what to do if a problem arises:
What it is: Sometimes referred to as dyslexia, this is by far the most common LD, accounting for some 80 percent of all diagnoses. Affected children have trouble decoding words and reading at a fast or fluent pace.
Signs to watch for: Problems with phonological processing. At the pre-school stage, you may notice difficulties with rhyming and playing with words, learning the alphabet or mispronunciation (for example, “pis-getti” for spaghetti), and placing words in the wrong order. Symptoms, however, will become most evident during early reading stages, in kindergarten and Grade 1. Look for difficulties in decoding and understanding words.
In-class intervention: While a diagnosis is possible as early as Grade 1, some experts prefer to wait a little longer. However, even if your child has not yet been assessed, you can push for intensive instruction—ideally focusing on a combination of code/phonics (breaking up sounds, alphabetic principles) and meaning (word identification strategies), with lots of opportunities for reading and writing, and plenty of experience with stories.
What it is: Those affected have difficulty organizing their writing—moving left to right, staying on the line, letter size and spacing, forming letters, etc. Almost always associated with a reading disability.
Signs to watch for: In addition to the items listed above, look for reversals (d’s looking like b’s)—although Dr. Price warns that all children create reversals until around age eight. Affected children may also display general struggles with and overall resistance to writing. May become apparent in early elementary school (Grades 1 to 3).
In-class intervention: Children should be given visual supports and explicit printing models—pictures of what letters look like, cues on where to start printing a letter, paper that shows where letters go and even pages with raised lines that indicate where printing should stop.
What it is: Involves difficulty with the language within math, as well as learning and remembering math facts and how to perform calculations. Again, almost always related to a reading and language disability.
Signs to watch for: Look for troubles with lining up numbers on a page, calculations and applying information learned. Most commonly surfaces around Grade 3 or 4.
In-class intervention: Some kids may be overwhelmed by the amount of info on a page and require smaller windows that reveal one problem at a time. Graph paper may be helpful in lining up numbers. Lots of practice should take place in the early years, although educators may need to introduce a calculator.
Nonverbal learning disability
What it is: This disability is related to difficulties in math, visual-spatial and motor areas, and is often marked by poor coordination, frequently getting lost, and problems picking up on social cues.
Signs to watch for: Affected children may display general clumsiness, difficulty learning to ride a bike or play catch, and problems with common social conventions, such as making eye contact, or confusion in conversational interactions. Becomes evident around Grade 2 or 3.
In-class intervention: Direct support in coordinating visual-spatial skills, math and printing. Also, instruction in understanding emotions, taking turns in conversation and proper eye contact. Help in organizing materials and additional structure. If your child gets lost easily, he may require signs in the hall to help him find his way.
For information or support, find your local Learning Disabilities Association chapter at ldac.ca.
Maybe your child doesn’t have a learning disability or autism, but just needs a little extra help with his school work. Here are a few options:
The basic idea: Students complete daily assignments, thereby building and strengthening a number of essential academic skills in small, gradual increments Subject areas: Reading and math Grades served: Preschool to post-secondary Maximum instructor-to-student ratio: While much of the work is independent, there should be at least one staffer per 20 students Approximate cost: $80–$110 monthly tuition, per subject (visits to the centre take place twice a week, but assignments are completed every day) Availability: 350 centres across Canada, in every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland
The basic idea: The focus is on the problems behind the problems, and instruction is centred on helping kids understand and apply language, and how to mentally organize information Subject areas: All major subject areas as well as test preparation Grades served: Preschool to adult Maximum instructor- to-student ratio: 3:1 Approximate cost: $40 per hour Availability: 85 locations in six provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia)
The basic idea: An initial battery of tests assesses a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Based on the results, an academic blueprint is created, which pinpoints the skills a student needs to work on, and programming is tailor-made to these needs Subject areas: Reading, math, writing and study skills Grades served: Preschool to Grade 12 Maximum instructor-to-student ratio: 3:1 Approximate cost: $43–$52 per hour Availability: Locations in nine provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland)
Although he wasn’t aware that it could help him maximize his academic potential, contributing editor Tim Johnson often slept until 11 a.m. on Saturdays when he was in high school. On rare occasions he still does.