How Do Families Learn To Cope?
The effects of learning disabilities can ripple outward from the disabled child or adult to family, friends, and peers at school or work.
Children with LD often absorb what others thoughtlessly say about them. They may define themselves in light of their disabilities, as “behind,” “slow,” or “different.”
Sometimes they don’t know how they’re different, but they know how awful they feel. Their tension or shame can lead them to act out in various ways – from withdrawal to belligerence. Like Wallace, they may get into fights. They may stop trying to learn and achieve and eventually drop out of school. Or, like Susan, they may become isolated and depressed.
Children with learning disabilities and attention disorders may have trouble making friends with peers. For children with ADHD, this may be due to their impulsive, hostile, or withdrawn behavior. Some children with delays may be more comfortable with younger children who play at their level. Social problems may also be a product of their disability. Some people with LD seem unable to interpret tone of voice or facial expressions. Misunderstanding the situation, they act inappropriately, turning people away.
Without professional help, the situation can spiral out of control. The more that children or teenagers fail, the more they may act out their frustration and damage their self-esteem. The more they act out, the more trouble and punishment it brings, further lowering their self-esteem. Wallace, who lashed out when teased about his poor pronunciation and was repeatedly suspended from school, shows how harmful this cycle can be.
Having a child with a learning disability may also be an emotional burden for the family. Parents often sweep through a range of emotions: denial, guilt, blame, frustration, anger, and despair. Brothers and sisters may be annoyed or embarrassed by their sibling, or jealous of all the attention the child with LD gets.
Counseling can be very helpful to people with LD and their families. Counseling can help affected children, teenagers, and adults develop greater self-control and a more positive attitude toward their own abilities. Talking with a counselor or psychologist also allows family members to air their feelings as well as get support and reassurance.
Many parents find that joining a support group also makes a difference. Support groups can be a source of information, practical suggestions, and mutual understanding. Self-help books written by educators and mental health professionals can also be helpful. A number of references and support groups are listed at the end of this booklet.
Behavior modification also seems to help many children with hyperactivity and LD. In behavior modification, children receive immediate, tangible rewards when they act appropriately. Receiving an immediate reward can help children learn to control their own actions, both at home and in class. A school or private counselor can explain behavior modification and help parents and teachers set up appropriate rewards for the child.
Parents and teachers can help by structuring tasks and environments for the child in ways that allow the child to succeed. They can find ways to help children build on their strengths and work around their disabilities. This may mean deliberately making eye contact before speaking to a child with an attention disorder. For a teenager with a language problem, it may mean providing pictures and diagrams for performing a task. For students like Dennis with handwriting or spelling problems, a solution may be to provide a word processor and software that checks spelling. A counselor or school psychologist can help identify practical solutions that make it easier for the child and family to cope day by day.
Every child needs to grow up feeling competent and loved. When children have learning disabilities, parents may need to work harder at developing their children’s self-esteem and relationship-building skills. But self-esteem and good relationships are as worth developing as any academic skill.
Can Learning Disabilities Be Outgrown or Cured?
Even though most people don’t outgrow their brain dysfunction, people do learn to adapt and live fulfilling lives. Dennis, Susan, and Wallace made a life for themselves – not by being cured, but by developing their personal strengths. Like Dennis’ tape-recorded books and lectures, or Wallace’s hands-on auto mechanics class, they found alternative ways to learn. And like Susan’s crafts or Wallace’s singing, they found ways to enjoy their other talents.
Even though a learning disability doesn’t disappear, given the right types of educational experiences, people have a remarkable ability to learn. The brain’s flexibility to learn new skills is probably greatest in young children and may diminish somewhat after puberty. This is why early intervention is so important. Nevertheless, we retain the ability to learn throughout our lives.
Even though learning disabilities can’t be cured, there is still cause for hope. Because certain learning problems reflect delayed development, many children do eventually catch up. Of the speech and language disorders, children who have an articulation or an expressive language disorder are the least likely to have long-term problems. Despite initial delays, most children do learn to speak.
For people with dyslexia, the outlook is mixed. But an appropriate remedial reading program can help learners make great strides.
With age, and appropriate help from parents and clinicians, children with ADHD become better able to suppress their hyperactivity and to channel it into more socially acceptable behaviors. As with Dennis, the problem may take less disruptive forms, such as fidgeting.
Can an adult be helped? For example, can an adult with dyslexia still learn to read? In many cases, the answer is yes. It may not come as easily as for a child. It may take more time and more repetition, and it may even take more diverse teaching methods. But we know more about reading and about adult learning than ever before.