Lack of awareness about Specific Learning Disabilities stands in the way of a child receiving the inputs necessary to take charge of his/her life.

Jayanthi Govind*, whose son Abhishek* was diagnosed as being “borderline dyslexic” as a child, remembers how difficult those early years were. Abhishek had a turbulent childhood, constantly changing schools, facing unsympathetic teachers, and being bullied by “good” students for requiring remedial help. He became withdrawn, short-tempered, and appeared to take no interest in his work. For long, Jayanthi was at a loss about what to do.

That was over a decade ago. Today, parents are more aware of different types of learning disabilities among children. Specific learning disabilities (SLD) like dyslexia (difficulty with reading and spelling), dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematics), dyspraxia (difficulty with motor coordination), and dysgraphia (difficulty with handwriting) are more readily recognised and treated. In India, a recent epidemiological study placed the prevalence of SLD at 10 per cent.

Can all children who perform poorly in school be thought of as having an SLD? “It’s important to rule out other explanations,” says Dr. Jaishri Ramakrishnan, consultant psychologist. “Has the child consistently not performed well, or is it a sudden development? Can any physical complications — for instance, auditory processing deficits, visual impairments or a case of serious anaemia — be contributing factors? Is the child going through an emotionally difficult period at home? Once these questions have been tackled, we can turn to learning disabilities as a probable cause.”

When Abhishek was first diagnosed, he was in Std VI and already receiving assistance from remedial teachers in his school’s resource centre, to which his class teacher had sent him. The role of a teacher in identifying children who could potentially have an SLD is crucial. “We start working on reading, writing and applying phonetics by Std I,” offers Thamarai, an English teacher in a primary school. Sometimes she encounters children who are slow in their work, have difficulty in reading or appear to hate writing. “When we find a child often interchanging or inverting letters, we ask the parents to try creating letters out of sandpaper, over which you can run your fingers, to help the child understand the letters better by forming tactile memories. Sometimes this works, but if it doesn’t, we send them to the school resource centre, where remedial teachers assess the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and work with them.”

Often, a lack of awareness among educators about SLD itself, or lack of awareness on what action to take, stands in the way of a child receiving assistance. “The fact that these children can be helped easily if taught in the way they can learn is not understood. So they are often just there in the class without getting much help,” says Lakshmi Narayan, a special educator at the Madras Dyslexia Association (MDA). The association now conducts a Mainstream Teachers’ Course, an intensive training programme whose goal is to equip teachers with an understanding of learning disabilities and their various manifestations, teach techniques to use, and show teachers how to help in the classroom and beyond.

When it became evident that her son might benefit from a full-time remedial programme, Jayanthi’s husband and daughter opposed the move as they were wary of sending him to anything other than a mainstream school. “For a while, I had been in denial myself, forcing him to do his schoolwork and punishing him for poor performances. It took time to realise that he wasn’t doing it on purpose. That’s when I stepped up to fight to get him the help he needed,” she recalls.

The parents’ acceptance of a child’s abilities is essential. “The earlier the better. However, I say this as a teacher. As a parent, I would say that acceptance is difficult, and something that the rest of us should be understanding about,” notes Thamarai.

One parent, whose nine-year-old attends remedial classes, agrees. “Today, there is a constant stream of tests, exams and project submissions throughout the school year. It puts both the parents and children under permanent stress. On top of that, you’re running to after-school classes as well. I think parents are making more demands of children these days. It’s time to start accepting what your child can do, instead of trying to live out your dreams through his/her life. When I look back on my childhood, I find that it is with many fond memories. I want my child to be able to do this too.”

At one point, every day was a struggle for Abhishek. Trying to be understood and accepted by those around him was an uphill task. “It was a tough time,” recalls Jayanthi. “He was frustrated with having to struggle so much and I often bore the brunt of this frustration. But I had to because, if I didn’t, who else could?”

Dr. Mohan Raj, consultant psychiatrist, points out that such feelings of frustration are common in children with SLD. He also notes that there can be co-morbidities alongside SLD. For instance, in the U.S., data from the National Health Interview Survey between 2004-2006 indicated that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or a learning disability diagnosis accounted for five per cent of the population among children each, while four per cent of the population were estimated to have both. Boys were also more likely to have these diagnoses than girls.

Similar nationwide surveys are yet to be carried out in India. In this context, Dr. Mohan Raj explains, “You might find that the child has a problem with attention and this is, in turn, interfering with his remedial training. Another issue that can sometimes be seen is bedwetting. There are also problems that are secondary to the learning disability itself that need to be taken into consideration. Perhaps people have trouble understanding what the child is going through, or perhaps the child’s self-esteem is affected because he is unable to explain why he is getting low marks. The child might also not feel comfortable with being singled out for receiving remedial attention. Feelings of anxiety and depression could follow because of this”.

Consultant school counsellor Mohana Narayanan elaborates, “Children tend to get labelled ‘slow’ by their peers, but I feel that is largely because of the adults’ attitude than that of the children themselves. If teachers and parents understand that it is not a disability but more a difficulty and that the child not being able to perform because of a learning issue does not indicate capability or intelligence, then children will not feel ashamed of seeking remedy.”

Abhishek spent three years in a remedial programme, and gradually, Jayanthi’s family started noticing changes. He now looked forward to going to school, was much less stressed out, and took an interest in his work. During those three years, Abhishek studied with special educators to learn at a pace that worked best for him. The objective of a special educator, Lakshmi explains, is to work on the needs of the child through his/her strengths.

“Since early identification and intervention are important, children ‘at risk’ for a learning disability — usually under six years — are also helped before the problem becomes full blown. Children in middle and senior school are taught study skills to cope with the vast amounts they have to learn.”

Helping a child cope with a learning disability always involves team work between the parents, teachers, special educators, psychologists or counsellors and the child, Dr. Ramakrishnan points out. “The rate of understanding varies from person to person,” she says, explaining why one-on-one classes are more beneficial than group classes. She believes that, because of individual differences, frequent follow-ups with educators and clinicians to discuss improvement are essential.

Abhishek was able to take his Std. X Board exams as an independent candidate. He decided to rejoin a mainstream school for the last couple of years, and sat for the Std. XII Board exams with his peers. Despite a rocky start, Abhishek eventually went on to do a post-graduation and is now successfully employed. “By the time the board exams came around, he had skills, confidence, and experience. A combination of all three helped him to cope back then, and help him cope even today,” says Jayanthi. At times, organisation and higher-level mathematics are still a challenge but one that he is able to overcome.

“As a parent,” she concludes, “There are two things you can give your child. The first is unconditional love, and second is an acceptance of who he is. You are his pillar of support. By holding on to you, he can fight the world; if you let go, he is gone.”

Help at hand

Central boards like the Central Board of Secondary Education and Indian Certificate of Secondary Education give students with learning disabilities a few concessions that can be availed on a case-by-case basis depending on recommendations made by educators and clinicians. These include:

  • Allowing use of a scribe
  • Allowing up to 60 minutes extra time to answer a paper
  • Exempting them from studying second and third languages
  • But, says Subha Vaidyanathan, academic coordinator at the MDA, more can be done. She cites examples of inclusive practices that would allow schools to make a positive impact on the students’ performance.
  • Allow the question paper to be read out and ask the child to give an answer orally to test the content and have someone else write (the answer)
  • Do not cut marks for spelling
  • Give a few minutes extra time
  • Do not exempt them from a second language. Instead allow them to learn it at their own pace and take tests orally initially
  • Allow copies of notes for those who are unable to copy from the board quickly or take dictated notes

*names changed