Why aren’t we identifying learning disorders earlier?

Some disabilities are evident and hard to miss. Others emerge later in life, but they’ve been there all along. Autism spectrum disorders are a commonly cited example, with some people only being diagnosed in adulthood. Learning disabilities, though, are another disability that may not necessarily be evident — though they should be — and are often missed. This results in huge missed opportunities for children¬†who live with conditions like dyslexia, as these developmental disabilities can interfere with the ability to acquire knowledge (hence the rather obvious name) and people may be left playing an impossible game of catch up.

On their face, learning disabilities should be easy to catch. If a student begins to struggle with tasks that the rest of the class is managing competently, it suggests that something is wrong. In the common example of dyslexia, a child may have trouble learning and retaining the alphabet, let alone writing it and distinguishing between upper and lower case letters and different fonts. In addition to taking longer than the rest of the class for this basic building block of reading, the student might also struggle to understand written language and to write independently.

The precise neurological mechanics of dyslexia aren’t understood, but we do have available therapies and treatments to help children with this relatively common learning disability. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that the child can catch up quickly instead of eternally lagging behind her peers. It also means that she won’t become a figure of mockery among her classmates, a legitimate concern for children living with learning disabilities. Additionally, she won’t become so frustrated with reading and writing that she gets turned off and gives up, essentially sacrificing her entire education just because no one could identify her learning disability.

But early identification often isn’t how things work out. Instead, such students are sometimes blamed for being lazy, told that they need to try harder. Their parents may be informed that they need to push their kids on homework and work more closely with them — this, of course, presupposes that parents themselves don’t have undiagnosed developmental disabilities that might interfere with their ability to support their children as they work on tasks like reading ¬†and writing. Being repeatedly accused of laziness can have an incredibly disheartening effect on children who may be trying their hardest and not understanding why they are failing, and because people devalue and ignore the voices of children, their protestrations that they really are trying may be ignored.

Other children — especially children of colour — may just be dismissed as stupid. Their teachers may not bother to encourage them or their parents, even in abusive ways like calling them lazy, instead opting for writing them off and shoving them to the back of the classroom. Students told that they’re stupid don’t have a particular incentive to try, and also internalise that kind of labeling, which doesn’t do wonders for their self-worth, love of learning and education, and belief that they can succeed after graduation — if they graduate at all.

Early identification of learning disabilities doesn’t need to be challenging. It takes relatively minimal training to help educators spot children who may be struggling and refer them to a professional for evaluation. If some children don’t have learning disabilities but do indeed just need to work harder and get more community support, they can be referred to people to help them with those issues — maybe a child with busy parents who can’t provide enough assistance could use in-school tutoring, for example, or maybe a child has poor home conditions that are causing depression, which makes it difficult to focus on schoolwork.

Meanwhile, children referred for suspected learning disabilities who do in fact have developmental disabilities can quickly and efficiently access interventions that will help them keep pace with their peers. The school’s team can help develop the most effective intervention programme for a given child, working with the child and her parents as well as instructors and tutors or other professionals to make sure she doesn’t fall through the cracks. She may go from a seat in the back of the room to the front, becoming a lively and active participant in the classroom environment — all because her teacher thought something might be wrong, and had resources to refer her to.

Getting support for children with learning disabilities is critical in communities where these issues go underdiagnosed and underaddressed, which, not coincidentally, is a common problem in low-income communities and communities of colour. Without early identification and intervention, we’re writing off an entire generation of children who could thrive with the right social and structural supports, instead of flailing in our classrooms and waiting eagerly for the bell to ring so their torture will be over for the day.

Yet, training and services require funding, something the United States is very reluctant to supply to its schools. The lack of education funding is a continual shame to the US, and no group may be more responsible than conservatives — the same people who shriek that abortion should be wrong because what if the next Albert Einstein gets aborted? In fact, we may already be failing the future innovators and thinkers of the US by refusing to provide them with the tools they need to thrive in early childhood education — and that is a much greater shame than the statistically small chance that a foetus with an undetermined fate might, possibly, hold the key to the cure for cancer.

Image: Crayons, Special, Flickr