The Changing Face of Learning Disabilities

This post has appeared in MetroKids Magazine and Pediatrics for Parents.

by Mary Ann Carrado Romans

The Changing Face of Learning Disabilities

learning difficultiesLast year, when Sahara Peti of Delaware County, PA was looking forward to kindergarten last year. Her big sister attended school, and Sahara couldn’t wait to do homework and read. “We didn’t think she would have any problems at all,” her mother, Sarah Peti says. “She loves stories, and I read to her every night.”

Enrolled in a school that stressed academics, Sahara started to struggle. “She would complain that school was too hard and bring her class work home for me to sign,” Peti says. “Her ‘esses’ were all backward, which I thought was typical of a five year old and kind of cute.” While Sahara’s beginning printing might have been cute, the notes from the teacher that soon followed weren’t. During a parent-teacher conference, Peti learned the truth: Sahara was showing all of the signs of a learning disability.

What are Learning Disabilities?
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), learning disabilities are neurologically-based processing problems that can interfere with learning basic skills, such as reading and math. Other higher skills, such as the ability to organize thoughts and think in the abstract, can also be affected. In other words, the brain has trouble processing information, and that trouble can lead to difficulty in learning.

There are four areas, or types, of processing that can be affected in a learning disability:
1. Input: Difficulties in processing information received through the eyes and ears. A child could have a hard time recognizing the subtle differences in letter or word sounds, or shapes, such as letters. He might reverse letters and numbers, skip or read the same words over and over, or even misjudge distances and bump into things.

2. Integration: Difficulties in making sense of information. A child could have difficulty putting things in order, such as the alphabet, the months of the year, or the times table. She might have trouble understanding that the same word has different meanings in different situations. He also may have trouble organizing everything, from thoughts to his room.

3. Memory: Difficulties in remembering information. A child could have trouble understanding a sentence because the brain can’t hold all of the individual pieces of information and blend them together for a full meaning. She could also have trouble with short-term and long-term memory, making test taking difficult.

4. Output: Difficulties in getting information communicated whether through language or motor skills. A child might struggle to organize his thoughts in order to respond correctly to a question. She might have trouble with fine motor skills, such as cutting, writing, buttoning or tying her shoes.

What has Changed?
Even in just the past year, we know so much more about learning disabilities and how the brain learns. Continuing research strives for a better understanding of the ways in which children like Sahara learn, and new teaching techniques based on this research have been successful.

In the past, the lack of understanding about learning disabilities was staggering. A diagnosis may have left parents baffled, wondering where it came from and how to “treat” it. Many parents never sought a diagnosis or treatment at all, embarrassed by the stigma attached to the “learning difficulties” term. A study by Roper Starch Worldwide for the Emily Tremaine Foundation, conducted in March of 2000, revealed that two-thirds of Americans linked learning disabilities with mental retardation, despite the fact that most people affected by a learning disability are of average or above-average intelligence.

Paul Yellin, MD, FAAP, the National Director of the Student Success Program for All Kinds of Minds, a non-profit devoted to research and education concerning learning difficulties, wants to change that. However, the term he prefers is “learning differences,” a key point in the new thinking.

“‘Learning Difficulties’ made it sound like all of these things they couldn’t do,” Dr. Yellin says. “A label of ‘disability’ can affect the self-esteem. But, kids that struggle can be very successful.” He adds that many parents are reluctant to seek assistance for their children because of the stigma. “When people surveyed parents, 44 percent had con-cerns about their children, but many don’t seek help. They worry [the diagnosis of a learning disability] would have a negative impact.”

Dr. Yellin prefers to look beyond traditional methods of teaching and educational standards. “In normal human development, there is a wide range of learning,” he says. “For example, we know that adolescents have difficulties with some elements of abstract thought.” He says having a different way of learning can be normal and expected. “People have different experiences as they grow up, and so there are differences in how they learn.”

“There are a lot of kids who have normal intelligence but are really struggling in school,” he says. “What we know now is that teachers and parents who do the research can help them develop specific strategies to learn more effectively.”

Dr. Yellin says that the new thinking about learning struggles is that education should be tailored to the student. “School used to be like a shoe store that only sells size nine,” he says. “There hadn’t been a lot of focus on how the brain develops.” New research con-tinues to be promising. According to Dr. Yellin, the way children learn appears to be a collaboration of what they’ve inherited and what they’ve experienced. “It is a complex interaction, but we are learning more and more about how valuable this interaction is. There is a tremendous opportunity as we learn about the brain, and there is more and more reason to be optimistic,” he says.

How Parents Can Help
“There is a lot parents can do to help kids be successful no matter how they learn, regardless of how they started out,” Dr. Yellin says. “One of the most powerful predictors of success [for children] is having an adult that believes in them, supports them, has high expectations of them and accepts them for who they are.”

Judy Winter, an award-winning writer and author of Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations, agrees. “There is true parenting power in a parent’s unconditional, unwavering love and commitment to their child; I’ve seen the results time and again, including in my own life,” Winter says. “It’s the kind of power that can and does change the lives of children with special needs and the lives of their families.”

Winter says that parents should educate themselves and be prepared to be an advocate for their child. “Parents need to have a solid understanding of their child’s diagnosis, the laws protecting the rights of children with special needs, and their own clear goals for that child,” she says. “And they must believe in the value of that child and their right to a better life. That belief helps fuel more effective parenting advocacy and solid decision making.

“The most important thing that a parens should do if he/she suspects their child of having a disability is to trust their gut instincts and get that child a professional assessment as soon as possible,” Winter says. “Early intervention is a key for a child’s disabilities because the sooner that child receives a correct diagnosis, the sooner the family can seek out the necessary support and important services, including early intervention and special education, services that can help that child achieve greater life success, regardless of the diagnosis.”

As for Sahara Peti? Her mother says she is now enrolled in a program that recognizes her different style of learning. “She is enjoying being at school now and has even begun reading,” Peti says. “The teachers there know that she is just a girl who needs to be taught differently.”

Organizations That Can Help

All Kinds of Minds –
The Center for Learning Differences –
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates –
Advocate for Children of NY –
Learning Disabilities Association of America –


January 7, 2013 · 8:06 am

2 responses to “The Changing Face of Learning Disabilities

  1. Mary K

    I never knew….thanks so much for sharing.

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