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Learning Disability Week: Leap & swim, float & fly

With both society and schools posing challenges for children with learning disorders, ensuring they don’t constantly feel overwhelmed and stressed demands empathy, understanding, determination and truck loads of effort from all of us, not to mention, a reimagining of how they learn and how we teach. Reema Ahmad has some practical advice for parents on how to go about doing precisely that,
Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 19:32 IST

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When I think deeply about the term disability, what comes to mind is not the list of ways the world has decided a person (in the context of this article, a child) can suffer mental, emotional and physical lack: What I feel instead is a dreadful sense of somehow not being enough. As if the entire world is a huge wall one keeps trying to climb and no matter how hard one tries, the jump to the other side is impossible: As if it has been pre-decided that this wall will somehow keep getting bigger and our bodies smaller, our minds unable to fathom where to seek a foothold or grip, our arms fragile and inadequate. 

I let this feeling stay with me. And sometimes, I imagine a different, unhappy ending for the 2007 movie ‘Taare Zameen Par’ which told the story of a dyslexic child caught in circumstances way beyond him. While it is a sensitive, heart-touching story where characters get second chances, support and love, I have often wondered at the less-happier endings that children with learning disabilities end up suffering in real life.

School in general can be harsh and hyper-focused on performance. With lesson plans, schedules and tightly boxed teachers ensuring board scores and topper lists, there is hardly any consideration for children whose capacities may not fit the norm. The one-size-fits-all approach to education in most parts of India really leaves no wiggle room for children who cannot speak, read, calculate or write in the exact ways and speeds at which they are required to, or expected to, in classrooms.

The mechanistic nature of our teaching methods reduces learning environments to race tracks where all machines must shine. Where is the room for the alive, differing, colourful beings that children are? What about those who also want to learn to climb, but slowly? It seems to me that what our world needs more than ever is parents and educators who hold lightly the importance of their own roles and who can learn to follow a child’s pace. Rather than wanting to direct how that pace is set, what our beautifully different children can benefit from is paying attention to what their pace looks and feels like and us learning how to honour it best.

Is that easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.

Knowing the basics

In the context of learning disabilities, the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) defines learning disabilities as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes of the brain involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, spell or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimum brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. However, the term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor handicaps, or mental retardation, emotional disturbance or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.” Specific Learning Disability or SLD is a neurodevelopmental disorder (NDD) and one of the 21 categories of disability included in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. Children with learning disabilities have mild to severe difficulty organising and storing information in the brain, which consequently affects how they understand material or people. 

Learning disabilities are broadly categorised as affecting:

  • Reading and language processing skills

  • Number and mathematic skills

  • Handwriting and fine motor skills

  • Integration, reasoning and organising of thoughts and ideas.

Some examples of SLDs are:

  • Dyslexia: Persistent difficulties with reading and writing.

  • Dyspraxia: Persistent difficulties with coordination and executive functions.

  • Dyscalculia: Persistent difficulties with comprehension of numbers and mathematics.

  • Dysgraphia: Difficulties with fine motor skills, commonly handwriting. 

  • Sensory Processing Difficulties/differences: Difficulty in processing information through the senses.

These disabilities can occur alone or in different combinations in children, resulting in complex challenges and adjustment issues. Different establishments may differ on what constitutes a specific learning disability. To avoid confusion, one can simply remember that conditions like ADHD, SLDs, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are part of a larger umbrella term neurodiversity that embraces the wide spectrum of neurological differences in people. Some neurodiverse conditions co-occur but learning disabilities can occur in people with no other behavioural markers that often accompany ASD or ADHD.

So someone with ADHD or Autism could have a learning disability but it is not necessary that someone with a learning disability will be autistic. Some experts on child development like Dr Gabor Mate believe that neurodiversity is an adaptive mechanism where the genetic matter in a child’s brain evolves in response to nurture, care, safe environment or the lack thereof. His views are not widely accepted by the traditional scientific community but I believe they are important to consider if we are to build compassion towards children who may be different from the norm.

Multi-pronged sword

Dyslexia is by far the most commonly occurring learning disability worldwide and in India. It is possible that it is diagnosed most as it is perhaps the most easily recognisable or obvious. Factors like bilingual education make it harder for dyslexic children to cope. Often schools have two or three languages as teaching mediums.

It is interesting that anxiety, difficulty concentrating and fear of certain subjects almost always accompany any learning disability. When there is a lack in the ability to read, write, calculate, appear coherent in ways that are socially acceptable and constitute popular notions of intelligence, a person is bound to feel afraid and limited. In that sense, in a world where the only mark of success or acceptability is the ability to climb huge walls, anyone who knows only how to swim, fly or simply float would be considered a failure.

Learning disabilities often go undiagnosed for years, especially in India. The extraordinary pressure to do well at school that is also tied up with social success, lack of awareness in parents and teachers and lack of easily available diagnostic facilities, forces them to learn ways of coping. But imagine the distress of being stuck in an unfamiliar place without the tools everyone else has. This may be simplifying the many complexities of learning disabilities, but for the sake of understanding what it feels like, imagine the constant pressure, confusion and disappointment at not being able to understand, express or be understood by others through writing, reading or numbers, especially if long-term survival depended on these intellectual aspects.

For parents, dealing with SLDs in their children can be a multi-pronged sword. First there’s their child who doesn’t fit into the norm set up by schools and society that claim to know better. This heightens the anxiety and emotional upheaval that naturally accompanies parenting. Then there is their own inability to comprehend what may be happening to their child. This is further amplified by shame and guilt as the surrounding environment considers any academic lack or slowness as absolute personal failure.

The subtle differences between learning disabilities and neurodiversity can also make it difficult to get diagnoses and help. Furthermore, diagnostic assessment for SLDs is not easily available in India. Does this mean that as parents, we give up all hope of being able to support our unique children to adjust and thrive in this world? I don’t think so. As parents of children with SLDs, we will have to access reserves of inner courage that enable us to see through these socio-cultural misconceptions if we are to offer our children a fair chance.

To put it simply, all our children may not be climbers. Some of them may be swimmers, and others, diggers or fliers or floaters. The natural world allows for abilities to overlap, coexist or stay isolated so beautifully. A frog can both leap and swim; a hippo can float, swim and run. Some birds only fly while others waddle and some can’t fly at all. The natural world has no awards. Here, all flourish to the best of their capacity and environment. I wonder if that may have something to do with animals not going to school.

Help your kids thrive, not just survive

Here are some ways you can support children with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs):

1. Pay attention to where and how a child struggles: The area of a child’s struggle at school, at least in the context of learning disabilities, can help us discern the nature of the disability, if it exists at all and if it exists in isolation or co occurs with another neurological condition like ADHD or autism. 

For instance, many children struggle with mathematics but not all have difficulty comprehending numbers or copying them in a way that makes sense. For some children, math is hard because there is not enough effort to teach it in a way that is experiential or connected to real-life issues. A lot of children who are not very good at the rote learning method can do very well with Montessori teaching methods that rely on doing rather than simply learning.

However, a child who has dyscalculia or dyslexia will have functional difficulty in even reading the numbers or the alphabet right. They may be able to understand concepts through other visual mediums but the script itself will be a challenge for them. 

Furthermore, mental and behavioural challenges (anxiety, panic, fear or phobia of a particular subject or activity, resistance to school itself) can exist in children without the presence of any SLDS or neurodivergence but they almost always accompany both. It can be tricky to determine what is what. Parents who understand that it is not just about figuring out ‘what is wrong’ with their child but also about noticing all the contextual, environmental, familial factors that contribute to why our children are the way they are will be able to discern more.

2. Seek early diagnosis and intervention

It may be useful to think of early diagnosis and intervention as a way to determine what can work better for your child, and what they might actually benefit from instead of forcing them to perform in a certain way. But diagnosis as a way to seek a comfortable label can often be limiting in its own way. The NIMHANS Specific Learning Disability Battery (NSB) is the only accepted assessment and certification to diagnose Specific Learning Disability (SLD) in India.

When we seek early diagnosis and intervention, it is important that we look for professionals who can empower children and not just tell us what they cannot do. That can be hard to find when there is no standardised testing for SLDs and just not enough specialists around, especially in schools. But the presence of global online services is a welcome change and we can use that to see what fits our needs better.

Early diagnosis can be especially helpful in equipping children and their families to adapt before phobias and anxieties around performance and chronic stress related to learning set in. The longer we delay seeking professional help, the more difficult it is to recover natural curiosity and flexibility in children. Families, teachers and schools can also adjust their expectations from children and support them better when there is help sooner rather than later.

3. Self-educate and learn

Parenting tests our capacity to accept, encourage, love and forgive even in the most ideal circumstances. When circumstances are challenging, it is natural to feel limited, helpless and at sea. But we’re not as helpless as we feel we are. Especially not in this day and age when information is available at our fingertips and we can access different sources from the comfort of our homes.

I understand that it is difficult to raise a child who can be easily misunderstood, ridiculed or worse, made to feel inadequate. However, as parents, we must protect them by doing what is possible. Please take the time to research diagnostic centres and private special educators; talk to their school to see how they can support you; join parent or educator support groups, which can give you a sense of community and direction. It isn’t enough to rely only on mainstream education systems that cannot accommodate children with special needs.

4. Try and let go of traditional notions of education

Easier said than done but it just doesn’t make sense to hold onto an education system that came into being to train children to be efficient workers. The traditional school system is based on the principles of replication, obedience, discipline and rote learning. None of these work well for neurodivergent children or children with SLDs. Segregating children into age-based learning groups and exposing them to artificial learning materials doesn’t work for children who cannot think or operate in linear patterns. In fact, there is no specific age graph for when learning disabilities arise in children and most of them learn better in natural surroundings through sensory play and creativity.

If we are to offer growth and learning opportunities to children in general and children with SLDs in particular, we need to reimagine our education system. Going back to age-old methods will simply limit them. To prevent that, our own fears around failure, disappointment and not fitting in need compassionate examination.

Whether your child is a swimmer, a climber, a runner or a waddler, nothing can take away from the fact that she is meant to do the best her body and brain can. How she will do that will depend a lot on how we accept, love and encourage her.

Resources to bookmark

  • LD Explained is a guide to learning disabilities and ADHD, founded by Ketaki Agarwal. It has exhaustive resources on learning disabilities and educational strategies as well as resource materials, assessment and advocacy guides. www.ldexplained.org

  • ALDI, Association for Learning Disabilities India, is one of the older non-government organisations. Formed in 1992 to help students, parents, teachers and professionals, it is based in Trissur. www.aldi.net.in

  • Anjali Morris Education and Health Foundation offers assessment and intervention for students with Specific Learning Disabilities and ADHD. It is also a global partner of the International Dyslexia Association and has over 50,000 teachers and 8,000 students associated with it. www.morrisfoundation.in

The writer is an author, poet, trauma and relationship counsellor and mum to a teenage boy, three cats and one dog.

Disclaimer: The writer is not a specialist on learning disabilities but writes from the space of someone who struggled with dysgraphia as a child and now flourishes as an adult with neurodivergence. This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. 

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Published 15 June 2024, 19:32 IST

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