Slowpoke. Stupid. Bobo. Weirdo. Nine-year-old Albie Casino has heard them all. He didn’t have friends in the exclusive boys’ school he attended from prep to grade two. Nobody wanted to play with him. One day, when he asked his mom Rina if he could bring his Koosh Ball to school, her heart broke as Albie explained: “If I don’t have it, nobody will play with me.”

It’s not because Albie looks different. A handsome boy, he has even modeled for a magazine. A smart one, he was one of the top 30 who passed his school’s prep entrance exam, which 1,000 or so boys took. But Albie can’t read or spell as well as the other children can. He reads “brop” for “drop,” “whon” for “whom,” “flit” for “felt,” “they had tried” for “they had trained.” He spells “entr” for “enter,” “maek” for “make,” “surkol” for “circle.” Albie, you see, has dyslexia.

What It Is
Dyslexia is defined in www.dyslexiauk.com as “a difficulty in learning the symbols involved in a written language. It is a chronic neurological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to recognize and process written symbols.” Put simply, a dyslexic mixes up his letters and numbers when he has to read and write. Ask him to say it, however, and more often than not he will get it right.

Dyslexia is just one type of learning disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a US federal law, defines a learning disability as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” That doesn’t mean stupidity or mental retardation.

There is a significant discrepancy between a youngster’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and his school performance. Children with learning disabilities have been known to be of at least average intelligence. Many are far above average. They have problems because their brains are “wired” differently from the average person’s.

The problem is this: “What a child perceives through his senses is different from what is processed or registered in his brain,” says Mary Joy C. Abaquin, directress of Child’s Place Preschool and Multiple Intelligence International School in Quezon City. Both are regular schools that have a special education and therapy division that assists alternative learners. “There is a discrepancy between the child’s potential versus performance.” A child may have a high IQ, for instance, but have difficulty reading.

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Learning disabilities are lifelong. “It doesn’t go away, but it can be managed,” says Abaquin.

How does one get it? Researchers believe it may be inherited, or brought about by brain disturbances resulting from maternal smoking, drinking, or drug use, especially in the first months of pregnancy. In Albie’s case, it is interesting to note that two cousins were also diagnosed with dyslexia.

The Many Forms of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities, according to Abaquin, come in different forms. We list them down here:

    Visual-perceptual deficit learning disability – the brain misinterprets what is seen.
    Memory deficit learning disability – the child has difficulty remembering what was seen or heard. This may manifest in difficulty copying notes from the blackboard or writing down what he says he will.
    Visual-perceptual-motor disability - the brain misinterprets what it sees and the child has poor motor control. He may form letters in odd ways, with the letters colliding and with no spaces in between words.
    Conceptual deficit learning disability – difficulty in certain forms of thinking: in making associations between similar kinds of information (what are alike or different); in generalizing: or in figuring out the sequence of scenes in stories.
    Spatial deficit learning disability – children cannot organize themselves spatially. They get lost in familiar environments and get confused with directions. They have trouble catching a ball and are generally disorganized, for instance forgetting their school bag at dismissal time.
    Auditory-perceptual deficit learning disability – the brain is slow to interpret what it hears. The child may be unable to hear differences in sounds and process conversations slowly, or mispronounce even common words like “spaghetti.”

Dyslexia may point to a visual-perceptual, memory, or any other form or deficit. Other types of learning disabilities such as dyscalculia (difficulty with math skills) and dysgraphia) difficulty with writing) may be traced to any one of the above. Some children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) may also have learning disabilities. However, if given help early enough, they may not have any problems in these areas.

Does My Child Have It?
It’s difficult to spot learning disabilities when a child is in preschool. The effects are usually seen in the early grade school years, when the child has to read a lot, memorize facts, and copy many things from the blackboard. Abaquin says that parents should watch out for the following signs:

    · has difficulty focusing on a task
    · has difficulty paying attention to details in a story
    · has a hard time with comprehension
    · has a hard time learning to write letters (mistaking “b” for “d” or “u” for “n,” for instance), or differentiating numbers
    · has difficulty following instructions; you have to repeatedly say things
    · has difficulty following a pattern in puzzles

Leirs Pagaspas, mom to a one-year-old son, remembers how math was excruciating for her. “I thought I was stupid because I can’t count change, add or multiply simple numbers,” she writes in her article “Living with Dyscalculia.” She excelled in other subjects, but often “fell flat on [her] face” in math. Summer remedial classes were common. “I make a great number of silly mistakes, and very, very often. For instance, 0s really confuse me. Ask me to remember ‘062’ and there’s a 99.9 percent chance I’ll tell you one of these: 602 or 620. In my head, I can visualize the number 062, but when it comes to saying or writing it, I scramble it all up.” Leirs was called a lot of names, from tanga to stupid to bobo to abnormal. “I really wish that I was diagnosed early so I could help myself,” she says.

The Next Step
If you suspect that your child has a learning disability, bring him to a psychologist. “If he seems to also have ADHD, bring him to a developmental pediatrician as well,” Abaquin adds. The important thing is to get a proper diagnosis so that he can get help through a special program.

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Albie was tested by his school’s guidance department after his teacher noticed his difficulty with reading. The teacher also noted that Albie would excuse himself from class whenever there was a board activity or when it was time for his remedial reading classes. When told that their son had dyslexia. Albie’s parents initially refused to believe it, saying, “Ano ba ‘yan? Baka okey lang.” It was only after Rina read up on the subject and then learned that two of Albie’s cousins were dyslexic did acceptance come.

Acting on the recommendation of the school’s guidance department, Albie’s parents brought him to Wordlab School in Quezon City, a private educational institution that assesses and works with children with learning disabilities. Wordlab recommended an after-school reading intervention program for Albie. They also wrote Albie’s school a list of things they could do for the boy to help him cope. Among these were giving him reading texts in advance so that he can have more time to practice on them, and giving him more time to take written tests.

His school was traditional and the atmosphere very competitive, however, so the requests couldn’t be accommodated. Albie was transferred to a progressive school. In this new school, classes are limited to 13 students for all grade levels and non-traditional ways of teaching are accommodated. The teachers slow down until the students understand a lesson; homework is not piled on, and addition techniques are taught with a rhythmic dance. All around, children are motivated to learn at their own pace.

Boost His Self-esteem
Albie is now in grade three in this school, and his parents can’t help but notice how much his self-esteem has shot up. Says Rina, “He has friends now and his social skills improved very much. He doesn’t say ‘I can’t’ that much anymore.”

“It is important to have a child’s self-esteem intact. If he feels that he can’t do it, you won’t be able to engage the child to learn and love what he’s doing; you can’t teach him,” Abaquin says. Boosting his confidence will also put a child on the right road to learning. Problems with conduct, which may result when children with learning disabilities becoming rebellious will be avoided.

Tips for Parents
The child with a learning disability needs all the love and support you can give. Abaquin shares some helpful tips for parents:

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    Find an area where your child is strong and give him enrichment activities. Let say your child is good in sports, then enroll him in a soccer or basketball program so he can hone his potential.
    Give him responsibilities at home. This will give him a sense of competence.
    Take time to help him with his difficulty. If your son has problems reading, read a book to him every night. Provide positive experiences, those that will not pressure the child.
    Encourage, not praise him. To praise a child is to say “very good” or “you did a good job” without specifically saying what he did that earned him the pat on the back. Chances are, he will not be able to repeat what you found commendable. When you encourage, you show a child what he did well: “Wow, you worked so hard. I’m very proud. I see that you colored within the lines.” The child will remember what he did and what needs to do next time.

Did you know that Tom Cruise is dyslexic? Albert Einstein also reportedly had difficulty reading and reversed his letters. Whoopi Goldberg and Cher also have learning disabilities. In the business world, Don Winkler, CEO of Ford Motor Credit Company, is dyslexic. One of the leading brain surgeons in the world, Fred Epstein, M.D., proved that spinal cord and brainstem tumors could be successfully removed by surgery—and this he did despite a learning disability. These people prove that nothing will get in the way of a child’s success—if he is given the love and help that he needs.

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