OPINION: For some children, despite having no known physical or mental disability, learning to read, write, spell, do maths, dress, throw and catch a ball, or organise themselves presents significant challenges. When childhood milestones involving speech and movement are slow to develop in young children, should parents be concerned that their child might have a learning disability?
Below we outline three learning disabilities and what to look out for.
One of the most common specific learning disabilities is dyslexia. Dyslexia is described as a difference in how children process information. It is often diagnosed shortly after starting school, when formal reading instruction begins. Some early signs of dyslexia are also observed during pre-school years.
Early indicators of dyslexia include poor phonological skills (the ability to manipulate sounds and words), difficulties with rhyme and rhythm, problems with remembering more than two pieces of information, and general forgetfulness. Physical co-ordination problems are often noticed in pre-schoolers who are later diagnosed with dyslexia. It is estimated that between 3% and 10% of children may have dyslexia.
The most common symptoms of dyslexia in school-aged children include difficulties with reading (reading accurately), reading comprehension, spelling and writing. Children with dyslexia may also have difficulties with following instructions, memory and organisational skills (organising school equipment, time management). Dyslexia also affects children’s self-esteem, which can be further lowered by bullying or teasing from classmates.
A child with dyslexia can be supported in a number of ways. Teachers need to be acquainted with appropriate reading strategies, such as decoding words (sounding out letters to form words – cat, c-a-t) and word attack skills (sounding out nonsense words – bem, b-e-m).
Parents can assist by reading aloud and having their children follow along in the book. Involving children in conversations over dinner, or asking them to retell a story they heard, can be of great help as well. Using tablets or smartphones, in addition to traditional teaching strategies, can assist children with dyslexia with their reading, writing and organisation skills.
Developmental dyscalculia is a specific learning disability involving mathematics. Children can experience problems understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers and learning basic maths facts.
Children are born with dyscalculia. It occurs in those with average to above average mental ability. It is estimated that between 5-15% of school-aged children and young adults have dyscalculia. One-quarter of students with dyscalculia are also diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The first signs of developmental dyscalculia are problems with counting, or being able to tell how many objects are in a group, even when there are just a few objects. Other signs of dyscalculia include: difficulty telling time or understanding time-related concepts, inability to discern which of two numbers is the larger, difficulty with memorising basic maths facts (like multiplication tables) and doing mental arithmetic, and difficulty with understanding mathematical formulae and concepts. Additional problems may include telling left from right, reading music and map reading.
Children with dyscalculia are best assisted by providing individualised instruction. Recent research has also shown promising results from computer-based instruction, where repeated opportunities to practice are provided in an engaging way.
When planning interventions, educators should consider the broad scope of mathematics skills to be learnt. Careful assessment is needed to determine what areas require attention. Skills should then be taught step-by-step. Other useful support strategies include the use of number lines, multiplication charts, an abacus and math games to support and reinforce student learning.
Developmental dyspraxia is also know as developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD). It is a condition where the co-ordination of arms, legs, fingers, mouth or eyes is less smooth, fluent or precise than seen in age-matched peers. Dyspraxia is thought to affect around 6% of children. Boys are four times more likely to present with symptoms than girls.
Dyspraxia can affect academic achievement (handwriting, speech) and everyday activities (use of cutlery, skipping). Problems with speech co-ordination are known as verbal dyspraxia. A high number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, language disorders, or born prematurely have dyspraxia.
The symptoms of dyspraxia vary from child to child, and from one developmental stage to the next. Speech co-ordination problems can include forming sounds, slower speech, limited vocabulary and perseveration (getting stuck on a word and repeating it). Poor oral co-ordination problems can also affect the ability to blow or suck.
Physical co-ordination problems may appear as clumsiness, poor balance, avoidance of toys that require good finger co-ordination (jigsaw puzzles), problems with pencil grip, or using scissors. There is a wide range of treatment options for dyspraxia. These include occupational therapy to improve motor co-ordination fluency and perceptual motor therapy, but research indicates some treatments are more effective than others.
It is important to keep in mind that regardless of the learning disability, the use of evidence-based interventions from a young age and throughout the school years can greatly improve a child’s academic, physical and social-emotional skills.
Having a learning disability is not a life sentence: just look at what Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, both sufferers of dyslexia, have achieved.
Sue O'Neill is a Lecturer in Special Education, Iva Strnadová is an Associate Professor in Education and Terry Cumming is a Senior Lecturer in Special Education at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.