Specific Learning Disabilities

The Oxford dictionary defines learning as, “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.” Most academic learning occurs in the school- going years and later, in colleges. In a formal learning environment, all learning is formatted and delivered to a child through an adult (teacher/ facilitator) and as long as there are no hiccups or gaps in the learning, not much thought is given to this automatic process. However, when a child shows large gaps in learning and understanding, there is a need to examine where the gaps are and how one can deal with them.

Specific learning Disabilities (SLD) is an umbrella term used to describe learning disabilities of various kinds. All these learning issues have different symptoms but some of them overlap. SLD should not be confused with other learning issues that result from economic, cultural or social disadvantages, mental retardation or delayed childhood milestones, emotional trauma or physical handicaps. The underlying cause of SLD is neurologically-based processing problems in the brain which results in difficulties in basic academic skills like reading, spelling, math and writing. It is not a single identifiable cause that can be pinpointed as the cause of SLD. Many studies suggest a combination of genetics and environment as the cause. Children with SLD will seem “normal” to look at and be with and have average or above-average intelligence but struggle to deliver when it comes to tests and academic requirements of the educational system.

SLD can further be divided into various specific conditions:

  • Dyslexia (difficulty with language processing, including reading and writing)
  • Dysgraphia (difficulty in graphomotor or writing skills)
  • Dyscalculia (math and number related processing difficulty)
  • Auditory processing disorder (inability to differentiate between sounds)
  • Language processing disorder (difficulty with word and meaning association)
  • Visual Motor/Perceptual disorders
  • Nonverbal learning deficit (difficulty in processing nonverbal clues)
  • Related disorders include ADHD (difficulty in concentrating on the given task), dyspraxia (muscle control deficits), memory related deficits and deficits in planning and organising tasks.

It is important to know that each of these conditions has symptoms that are unique to it as well as overlapping with other conditions. However, a child who displays some learning deficit or difficulty is almost always labelled as lazy, diffident or even “dumb”. The first step is to realise that it is NOT so. These conditions do exist and the earlier it is diagnosed, the earlier the child can be helped with strategies to cope and to narrow the gaps in learning. A proper assessment of the child who shows symptoms of lagging behind in class level academics by a special educator or in most cases, by a team consisting of pediatrician, special educator, psychologist/ counsellor will help to differentiate between SLD and other conditions. The key is to get the assessment done as early as possible, so that the condition can be identified. There is no “cure” for specific learning disabilities because it is not a disease. There is no magic wand that wills the condition away. However, “remedial education” is necessary to help the child cope with this invisible handicap. Remediation includes teaching the child using the learning style that works best for each child, helping to overcome the learning and skill gaps, and imparting learning strategies that will help in independent functioning. The goal is to help the child integrate into the learning environment and cope academically, so that it has minimal effects on the social, emotional and intellectual capabilities of the child, and later, of the adult that he/she grows into.

The prevalence of SLD varies in various countries and was earlier thought to be more prevalent in boys. However, now it is believed to be equally prevalent in both, boys and girls. What we also know is that it can affect the economically privileged, the economically disadvantaged, the children of highly educated parents as well as first generation learners, urban and rural children, biological children and children through adoption

The differential diagnosis of SLD and other learning problems is best done by the team of specialists, as mentioned earlier. In case of children through adoption sometimes, the combination of social, emotional or physical environment prior to the adoption might be unknown or might affect future learning outcomes. The jury is still out on whether or why the prevalence of SLD is higher in adopted children. It is complicated because of the fact that much of the pre-adoptive history of stress, genetics or trauma is unknown. However, whether the child is biological or adopted, the symptoms of SLD are best dealt with gently and in a structured manner by giving the necessary support to the child and by providing remedial education at the earliest. In fact, a child through, by way of the supportive environment that the adoptive parents are already likely to ensure at home, is at a better position and likelihood to receive remediation.

The strategy to deal with SLD is thus:

  • Early identification of the condition
  • Acceptance of the situation by the parents (adoptive or biological)
  • Ensure adequate remedial education
  • Work with the strengths of the child and build the child’s confidence
  • Engage with the child and provide opportunities in a supportive manner – this includes the home environment as well as, finding a supportive and inclusive school
  • Encourage the child to pursue his/her interests – many children with SLD have superior talent in music, art, sport or performing art

What NOT to do as parents:

  • Don’t delay diagnosis or assessment for SLD
  • Don’t expect a “cure”
  • Don’t thrust parental expectations of academics on the child
  • Don’t label the child lazy, unmotivated or dumb
  • Don’t think that the cause of SLD is adoption – it is NOT.
  • Don’t think that the child will cope on its own – most cases require some amount of remediation
  • Don’t overplay the child’s condition – what the child needs is support not overindulgence.
  • Don’t lose hope – your child’s journey is one of a kind. Understand that your negativity may further trouble the child. A few changes in the teaching strategy is all it takes at times to progress.

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