by Joan M. Thomas
What do Thomas Edison, Nelson Rockefeller, Bruce Jenner and Albert Einstein have in common? Unquestionably, they all achieved something of significance in their fields of endeavor. But there's more. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, each of these highly acclaimed individuals suffered from some kind of learning disability.
Experts who study the subject, including the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), confirm what Edison, Rockefeller, Jenner and Einstein proved in their lives—that generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are of average or even above-average intelligence. That may be the reason that a learning disability often goes undetected until a child starts school.
But there are characteristics that can be observed in preschool-age children. And, as with any other disorder, the sooner it is discovered, the sooner the child will get help with coping with a situation for which there is no cure.
Moreover, "Learning difficulties aren't always a sign of a specific learning disability," points out Karen Walsh, an Effective Practice Specialist in Psychological Services of the Special School District of St. Louis County, Missouri, and president of the Missouri Association of School Psychologists.
There may be physical, medical, emotional or environmental forces at play, Walsh says.
Six key signs
The Learning Disabilities Association of America lists six signs that indicate a possible learning disability in a preschool child:
Parents can measure their child's development by comparing it with that of other children the same age. In a biography of Einstein, the scientist's sister is said to have reported that he was slow to learn to speak. At an early age, the future formulator of the theory of relativity manifested language delay, the first of the LDA's signs of a learning disability.
Bruce Jenner's difficulty with reading persisted through the sixth grade when it was thought that he might need eyeglasses. After his vision tested at 20/20, a doctor finally diagnosed his condition as dyslexia, a common learning disability.
Thomas Edison was described by his teacher as a poor student with "muddled" thinking. After his three months of formal schooling, his mother pulled him out of class and provided the remainder of his education at home. Edison's mom must have understood his need for "special education."
"There really is no typical learning-disabled profile," says Walsh. "Specific learning disabilities can vary in severity and scope."
She adds that parents may notice early in their child's development that the child has "difficulty acquiring basic skills—memory for songs, attention to detail in pictures, learning new words, learning to rhyme, or mastering one-to-one correspondence."
Often, because the learning-disabled child is bright in most aspects, the condition is not discovered until the child starts school.
Walsh says, "Many children are identified with learning disabilities in reading in the early elementary years—in first or second grade, as teachers and parents realize that they cannot master sound-symbol relationships, cannot remember sight words, or cannot blend sounds in words."
Disabilities in math and writing are often noticed in the third and fourth grade.
Nobody is sure what causes a learning disability. Most available resources put it that learning disabled people's brains are wired differently—which explains the lack of a cure. Living with a learning disability is like operating on a DOS system with a Windows application. In order to comprehend the data, the person must be able to adapt, or interpret.
For parents who suspect that their child has a learning problem, Karen Walsh recommends starting by having the child's vision and hearing screened. The LDA advises also having the child evaluated by a learning disabilities specialist or child psychologist.
Because learning difficulties aren't always a sign of a disability, says Walsh, "hidden medical problems like juvenile diabetes, sickle cell anemia or petit mal seizures can seriously impact learning ability." The psychologist or pediatrician can rule out emotional or social deficits as causes.
Once a learning disability is diagnosed, parents can take positive action. If the condition is addressed early on, special education may not be necessary.
"As partners, the teacher and parents can monitor the child's progress and adapt instruction to meet the child's needs before he or she falls behind their peers," says Walsh. "Programs that segregate children with learning disabilities in homogeneous classrooms, apart from their non-disabled peers, are the last resort."
Facing the reality of a learning disability simply means getting the child the needed help. Most schools have teams of professionals who work together in the best interest of the student's future.
And Walsh warns parents not to allow a disability to become the child's identity. She urges a parenting style that nurtures the child's personal strengths and special interests. "Many children with learning disabilities excel in music, sports, dance, art and interpersonal relationships," she says. They may or may not be Einsteins, but they are all "special."
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The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.